Sensual and provocative, this hitherto unrecorded picture, depicting a famous tale of Olympian adultery, is an important addition to Hendrick Goltzius’s late oeuvre. A pivotal figure in the transition from Dutch Mannerism to Classicism, Goltzius started his career as one of the most influential engravers of late sixteenth century Europe. Working in the prosperous city of Haarlem, Goltzius’s exuberant and widely-disseminated designs set the tone for Mannerism across Northern Europe. In 1600, Goltzius turned to painting, rapidly reaching the same level of accomplishment that he had attained with his graphic work.
The story of the illicit liaison between Venus and Mars was told by Homer in the Odyssey (8:226-367) and later recounted in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (4:171-189). Venus, goddess of love, married to Vulcan, the god of fire, betrayed her husband with Mars, the god of war, laying with him in her palace. Upon learning of his wife’s infidelity from the sun god Apollo, Vulcan decided to punish the adulterous couple by trapping them in an invisible bronze net and exposing their shameful act to an assembly of other gods. A popular subject in early seventeenth century Netherlands, due to its moralistic connotations and erotic potential, Goltzius had treated this amorous theme previously in a famous engraving of 1585 (fig. 1; Hollstein 137.1). Brimming with energy and with a mannerist flourish indebted to Bartholomäus Spranger (see lot 13), this print depicts the climactic moment of the lovers’ exposure, surprised by the sudden interruption of the celestial court. He treated the same dramatic moment in another print of 1590 (Hollstein 223). By contrast, this picture depicts the beginning of the amorous liaison, the moment when Mars, his face flushed with desire, his eyes gleaming with anticipation, eagerly embraces the goddess, who gently tempers his advances while turning to confront the viewer. A picture of the same subject, possibly the present lot, is recorded in the inventory of Herman Becker in 1678, see Nichols (op. cit.).
The half-length format is reminiscent of Goltzius’s graphic series on the Five Senses, which depict similarly flirtatious couples each engaged in activities alluding to one of the senses (fig. 2). If originally part of such a cycle, the present picture may have represented the sense of Touch. More likely, however, is the possibility that Mars and Venus was originally paired with another depiction of divine desire, for example Goltzius’s Jupiter and Juno (fig. 3; Private collection). The two pictures not only share the same distinctive half-length format and are of nearly identical dimensions, but they are also stylistically consistent, and together their compositions offer remarkable symmetry, both presenting a self-confident goddess gazing out to the viewer while being embraced by their partner. There seems to have been a trend for half-length depictions of mythological couples in Haarlem in the mid-1610s. A canvas of roughly equal dimensions depicting Venus and Adonis (fig. 4; Caen, Musée des Beaux- Arts) was painted two years earlier (1614) by Goltzius’s friend Cornelisz. van Haarlem. A second picture by Cornelisz. of Mars and Venus (fig. 5; The Schorr Collection), painted in the same year and again on a similar scale, bears an even more striking comparison with Goltzius’s image. The two compositions are extremely similar: the two figures are in a nondescript, shallow space, with the female shown pressing her left hand against her insistent companion’s chest, whose right hand in turn rests on her shoulder. Given their friendship and close artistic collaboration - Goltzius engraved a large number of Cornelisz.’s paintings earlier in his career - this link can hardly be coincidental and Cornelisz.’s composition is therefore likely to have provided an important pictorial source for the present work. In his rendition of Mars and Venus, Goltzius has replaced the old man with a youthful Mars, identified by his plumed helmet, breastplate and crimson cape. Goltzius’s goddess, however, is more akin to Cornelisz.’s courtesan; gazing immodestly and defiantly at the viewer in contemporary dress, her identity is only discreetly indicated by the rose wreath – Venus’s emblematic flower – which adorns her braids.