Around the beginning of the seventeenth century, fashions in Italian art moved from the studied elegance and distortions of Mannerism toward more colorful, direct, naturalistic, and dramatic images that were easier for viewers to understand. This new style, today called the Baroque, was used for both religious and secular work. Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, known even now by his familiar nickname Guercino, was among the masters of the Italian Baroque. He combined the luminous colors and naturalism characteristic of Venetian art with the dramatic compositions seen in the work of artists from Bologna. Guercino painted a number of commissions in Rome for the Bolognese Pope Gregory XV.
"Mars with Cupid" was one of a pair of images painted for a military general, for whom an image of Mars, the god of war, would undoubtedly have had some significance. The commission also included a painting of "Venus and Cupid," now lost. The pairing of an image of the goddess of love with an image of Mars, who gazes out of the frame (presumably at Venus in the other canvas), suggests that love can conquer even the strongest of warriors.