This allegorical scene depicts the triumph of Peace over War, of Love over Hate, a subject particularly resonant at the height of the Thirty Years' War (1618-48). Venus, Goddess of Love, nourishes her son Cupid, while Mars, God of War, is literally disarmed by love: a cherub mischievously undoes one of his armour straps. Cupid is balanced on Mars's shield, which is decorated with the monstrous face of Medusa; his precarious position refers to the unstable nature of love and peace.

Venus repeats the figure of Peace in Rubens’s Peace and War in the National Gallery, London, while the figures of Mars and Cupid in this painting seem to derive from Dürer’s print of the Penance of Saint John Chrysostom.


  • Title: Venus, Mars and Cupid
  • Date: Early to mid-1630s
  • Physical Dimensions: w1330 x h1952 cm
  • Type: Painting
  • Medium: Oil
  • Work Notes: Perhaps one of a number of pictures from the Bryan sale, Coxe, 19 May 1798 (DPG 128, 170, 197, 241, 243, 285). Presumably all were bought by Desenfans.Could be Michael Bryan; his sale, London, Coxe, 10 May 1804, lot 76?Several copies are recorded in the Witt library.Burton Fredericksen writes Jan 17 2003:I re-read the introduction to Murray's catalogue, and noted what he said aboutRubens' Venus and Mars. It is very unlikely that this painting went from a sale in London in 1798 to a sale in Amsterdam in 1803. The traffic almost never moved in that direction, especially during a time of war (although there was a truce in1802).The 1803 sale is one of those I analyzed for the first volume of the Census ofPaintings sold in the Netherlands, and the lot in question was sold for a price of129 guilders, not an appropriate price for a big picture like the one at Dulwich.The description does not mention Cupid, and the dimensions are not given; the link is based on the mention of the painting having belonged to the ex-King of Poland, and that it had fetched a very high price at his sale in St. Petersburg. But your picture had not been in St. Petersburg, so far as we know, and I don't think the reference is trustworthy. This painting was one of a large group consigned by ""A"" who, of the four consigners, owned the most paintings. Almost all of these were Italian and Flemish paintings that brought very low prices, and the Rubens is the only one with a provenance. I think I can trace one other lot to a sale in Paris in 1793, but there is nothing to link these paintings to London. So I think this reference can be at least questioned, if not expunged altogether. An examination of the previous sale of 1798 would be required to settle the matter.
  • Work Nationality: Flemish
  • Support: Canvas
  • Provenance: Paris, Louis-Philippe, Duc d' Orléans (seen by Watteau bef. 1720); London, Orléans sale, Apr. 1793, lot 6; London, B. Vandergucht (d. 1794); his sale, London, Christies, 11 Mar. 1796, lot 42. Bt Egles; London, Michael Bryan; his sale, London, Coxe, 19 May 1798, lot 19; Amsterdam, Schley, 27 Apr. 1803, lot 'A' ('Un Magnifique Tableau, representent Venus & Mars, peint par P.P. Rubbens, ce morceau ˆ apartenu, au feu Roi de Pologne, & a été vendu ˆ un tres haut prix, a sa vente, a St. Petersbourg' ie. as ex-King of Poland Collection so probably ex-Desenfans). Bt Josi for fl 129; Paris, Christian Josi; London, Sir Francis Bourgeois, 1811; Bourgeois Bequest, 1811.
  • Further Information: "Rubens felt that painters should imitate sculpture but not too closely. They should be particularly careful to record those creases, dimples and areas of fat which distinguish real bodies from cold marble. His Venus is a painterly nude: soft, fleshy, beautiful (though faintly imperfect), and boldly executed with a coarse brush. Rubens makes the viewer aware of the sense of touch, whether we are enjoying the real surface of the paint or the imaginary surface of the skin or armour. But this painting is not merely sensual: Rubens wishes to flesh out his ideas. He uses Greek and Roman gods as the embodiment of abstract virtues, which might otherwise be impossible to visualise and to value. What at first seems to be a mythological family posing for their portrait, is in fact an allegory of the triumph of Peace over War, of Love over Hate. Mars (the God of War and appropriately set against a dark blood-red cloth) is literally disarmed by love: a little cherub cuts him from his armour. Venus meanwhile (the Goddess of Love and suitably light, white and tender) nourishes her baby, Cupid. The child clutches at his mother and is narrowly saved from falling. Below Cupid lies Mars's shield, with a monstrous face carved on it, like an evil black hole cut through the painting. The baby seems to be dangling over the mouth of Hell. To protect the spirit of love is a precarious venture, according to Rubens, especially at the height of the Thirty Years War. Venus feeds Cupid, who was her son (according to some accounts) by an adulterous union with Mars. DPG285 was probably painted in the early to mid-1630s. The figures of Mars and Cupid seem to derive from Dürer 's print of the 'Penance of Saint John Chrysostom', while Venus repeats the figure of Peace in Rubens's 'Peace and War' in the National Gallery, London. The X-ray reveals that originally Cupid's left leg was back; Venus's drapery; at which Cupid tugs, was taut; and Venus's left leg swayed to the right, ending in front of the shield."
  • Artist: Rubens, Sir Peter Paul
  • Acquisition Method: Bourgeois, Sir Peter Francis (Bequest, 1811)

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