Venus and Mercury, the goddess of Beauty and the Protector of the Arts, watch over two wrestling putti, Eros (spiritual love), and the goat-legged Anteros (sexual love). The lute, palette, musical score and caduceus (symbol of eloquence) beside Mercury confirm the reading of this scene as the victory of the higher, spiritual satisfactions over earthly gratifications.

In the eighteenth century this painting was cut into pieces: the Dulwich picture is the right-hand section of the original canvas; the other major fragment, depicting five music-making putti, is in the Louvre, Paris.


  • Title: Venus and Mercury
  • Creator Lifespan: 1594 - 1665
  • Date: c.1627-29
  • Physical Dimensions: w876 x h800 cm
  • Type: Painting
  • Medium: Oil
  • Work Notes: DPG481 is a fragment of a larger composition of which the left-hand part, showing music-making putti, is now in the Louvre. A drawing in the Louvre and an etching by Fabrizio Chiari of 1636 show that both the surviving fragments have been cut at the top and that the composition originally included an airborne putto aiming a dart at Mercury. A putto in the Louvre fragment prepares to award wreaths to the fighting putti in DPG481, who have generally been identified as Anteros and Eros, suggesting that the subject is an allegory of the antagonism between spiritual and sensual love. E. McGrath (letter on file, 1997) notes that the fighting putti could be read as Cupid and the infant Pan and need not, therefore, signify more than the ascendancy of love over all things ('omnia vincit amor'). DPG481 has generally been dated c.1627, but is placed by Mahon within the period 1629-31.Burton Fredericksen writes Jan 17 2003:'As for the Poussin of Venus and Mercury, I have not yet been able to consult most of the sales, but I can correct one thing: it is fairly certain that it never belonged to Clemens August, the elector of Cologne. It did appear in the sale of 1764 as lot 52, which paintings had supposedly come from his collection, but in fact they were now the property of a Frenchman, probably a dealer named Neveu, who had bought most of them at the sale of Clemens August in Bonn a few months earlier. We have thoroughly analyzed the results of this sale in Germany using multiple archival documents recording the results, and have also matched the lots sold in Bonn with those sold later in Paris. Thirty of them can be traced to the German sale, but lot 52 is one of those that cannot. There was no picture by Poussin in the collection at all, and no pictures of this subject. So it probably had a different source and was added by the proprietor to those imported from Germany.'The left hand side is now in the Louvre and Poussin also made a drawing (also Louvre) for an etching made by Fabrizio Chiari in 1636.
  • Work Nationality: French
  • Support: Canvas
  • Provenance: London, Smith and Bassett, Lankrinck sale, 11 Jan. 1693, lot 309; Rotterdam, Willis, J. Meijers sale, 9 Sep. 1722, lot 2; Paris, Neveu(?) sale, 1764, lot 52. Bt Basan; London, Christie's, Anon. sale, 11 Feb. 1778, lot 22. Bt Lebrun; London, Sir Francis Bourgeois, 1811; Bourgeois Bequest, 1811.
  • Further Information: "This canvas is the largest of two fragments of an early painting by Poussin. A smaller picture with music-making putti would have formerly been to the left of this fragment. It is now in the collection of the Louvre. The painting was probably cut down around 1764 in France, because of damage to the top part of the canvas or because of its erotic content. Venus and Mercury rest in the shade beneath a group of trees, next to the goddess's gold chariot. In the original painting, four putti would have been to the left playing music and singing, while a fifth stands holding two laurel wreaths. He is intending to crown the victor of the fight that takes place centre stage, between a winged Cupid and a small satyr. The sensual nature of the picture, in its luscious rendering of pallid female and ruddy male flesh, is in character with many of Poussin's early paintings, deeply influenced by sixteenth-century Venetian painting and by the art of Correggio. It is thought that the painting represents the struggle between sensual love and virtue, shown in the wrestling Eros (with goat's feet) and the winged Anteros in the bottom left corner. This theme was particularly popular in Renaissance and Baroque Italy, and embodies 'one of Poussin's most cherished beliefs … that beauty is an expression of virtue and that both of these find their supreme manifestation in art' (Richard Verdi, London, 1986)."
  • Artist: Poussin, Nicolas
  • Acquisition Method: Bourgeois, Sir Peter Francis (Bequest, 1811)

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