A decorative curtain and foliage provide an elegant backdrop for this idyllic mythological scene, which is presented in a simple yet bold composition and painted with effortless skill. The bearded old satyr, half kneeling, is cautiously observing the ravishingly beautiful, recumbent nude sleeping Venus, while plump little Cupid, hardly taller than his bow and quiver, is slumbering beside his mother, with his feet tucked under him. The senuous, indeed voluptous posture of Venus is further enhanced by Ricci's resonant palette. In contrast to the white sheet and slate grey curtain setting off Venus' luminous flesh tones, the coloristic intensity of the crimson bed cover is erotically suggestive. The warm colour is softly repeated in the ribbon loosened from her hair, which gently winds around her breast, and in Cupid's weapons. The gentle, soft contours and the vigorous brushstrokes also add to the pictorial qualities of the painting.
The composition represents a popular subject with a long tradition. Similar images juxtapose dreaming and wakefulness, the soft female nude and the hard muscular body, feminine sophistication and masculine brute strenth. Important antecedents to Ricci's work that stress these pecularities include Titian's Pardo Venus in the Louvre, an engraving by Annibale Carracci from 1582 and Rembrandt's 1659 etching showing Jupiter and Antiope, to cite three notable examples.
The painting has been formerly identified with the following item in the inventory of the artist's estate, made at the time of his death: "Una Venere con satiro che la guarda". This would imply a late dating of the painting. However, on grounds of style, the painting can be dated much earlier, to 1716-20, immediately after Ricci executed some works on commission for Lord Burlington in London. The sleeping pose of Venus repeats almost verbatim that of Endymion in the Diana and Endymion at Chiswick House. Since Ricci painted this subject matter in more versions, and because of the stylistic links with his works in England, we cannot be certain that the Venus and Satyr in Budapest is indeed the painting that figured in the artist's post mortem inventory.
Text: © Zsuzsa Dobos