Wtewael specialised in cabinet paintings of this type, especially on copper panels, whose smooth surface allowed him to show off his highly refined miniaturist technique to best advantage. His pictures on this small scale were highly finished, detailed and coloured, and undoubtedly meant to be physically handled, the better to appreciate their highly wrought and brightly enamelled surfaces. Here he plays artfully upon the subtle contrasts between the lightly brushed skin tints of Venus and the more richly painted martial attributes of her lover. The tension of the lovers’ physical proximity is enhanced by their elegant mannerist contrapposto. Wtewael’s skill in this field earned him international renown. Karel van Mander considered him '...very excellent and subtle in all aspects of art' and ranked him 'among our best Netherlandish painters'. He further remarked that 'it would be difficult to say at which he is the more outstanding: whether on a large or a small scale... One comes across many small pieces of excellent precision and neatness by him' and went on to single out two pictures of Mars and Venus for praise.3
The subject of Mars and Venus was evidently a favourite of Wtewael and his patrons, for he returned to it on a number of occasions. Another treatment of the subject in which the two lovers are discovered by Venus’s husband Vulcan was, for example, painted by him on at least four occasions. Particularly fine examples are that painted in 1601 now in the Mauritshuis in The Hague, and the slightly later copper of 1605–10 in the Getty Museum, Los Angeles.4 The most similar of all, however, to the present work is the slightly larger copper today in Amsterdam, Stichting Collectie P. en N. de Boer (fig. xxx). Slightly larger in size (18.2 x 13.5 cm.) this is given a slightly later dating by Lowenthal to around 1610.4 Here the two deities are similarly clad and their embrace set in a similar neutral curtained space, with Cupid as spectator. The design of the present copper seems to have been influenced by an engraving by Hendrick Goltzius of 1588, made after a design by Bartholomeus Spranger (fig. xxx), from which Mars’s embrace of Venus from behind seems to have been derived. Lowenthal suggests that the smaller and more slender figures, with their affinities to those in the 1601 copper in The Hague, point to an earlier date for the present work.
As Lowenthal observes, this copper may be the 'Een ovaeltgen van Jochem Wttewael synde Mars en Venus... f.25' ('A small oval by Joachim Wtewael depicting Mars and Venus') recorded in the inventory of the estate of Margaretha Bosmans, widow of Jan Nicquet in Amsterdam, dated 14, 15 and 19 December 1612.6 Jan Nicquet (1539–1608) lived in the Warmoesstraat and was a very wealthy merchant who had settled in Amsterdam by way of Haarlem. His portrait was drawn and engraved by Hendrick Goltzius in 1595. He traded between London and Venice and seems to have formed an extensive collection of paintings, including works by Gossaert, Van Mander and Coninxloo, as well as an Adoration of the Shepherds by Jacopo Bassano, in addition to prints, medals, jewels and natural history specimens.7 His collection passed to his son Jacques Nicquet (1573–1642) who kept it in a large house on the Herengracht in Amsterdam. He in his turn bequeathed his collection to his nephew Gerard Reynst (1599–1658). Together with his brother Jan (1601–46) he formed one of the most important cabinets of paintings of his day in Amsterdam. This Wtewael does not, however, feature in any lists of his paintings.8
It is not difficult to understand the attraction of such pictures for contemporary collectors. The combination of sensual and aesthetic delight was complemented by the intellectual enjoyment derived from the subject’s classical pedigree. The love of Mars and Venus was, of course, illicit, and the adulterous pair were exposed to ridicule by Vulcan. Undoubtedly many of Wtewael’s contemporaries would have read a moralising message in such a subject, including perhaps Goltzius himself, the inscription to whose 1588 engraving of Mars and Venus compares Apollo’s revelation of the adulterous couple to God’s knowledge of the sinners’ transgressions. Others warned of the dangers inherent in contemplating such blatant imagery. Dirck Coornhert wrote in 1586, for example, that contemplating pictures of a ‘naked Venus’ produced ‘fiery impurity, burning desire and hot passion’.9 Wtewael’s painting plays deliberately upon the contrast between Venus’s twin role as goddess and symbol of both erotic earthly love (minne) and its spiritual counterpart (liefde).10 This contrast between ideal and physical love would have been entirely familiar to a seventeenth-century viewer. Its precepts were probably known from from Marsilio Ficino’s De Amore of 1474–75, itself a commentary of the work of Plato. As Pieter Cornelisz. Hooft wrote in his play Granida (1605), physical love was a necessary component of the human condition, redeemable if connected to purer heavenly love. As Lowenthal remarks, the fact that Wtewael’s viewers were able to balance the picture’s particularly physical charms with its sinful subject is due to contemporary notions that engaging the passions with a sensual image opened the way to reason and judgment. The dramatist Gerbrand Adriaensz. Bredero claimed (in defense of his own work) that Men weet so noodich het venijn, Als dinghen die daar goedt voor zijn (‘Vice, like sickness, must be known before its cure’). Thus it is that in this curious – and particularly Dutch – moral duality, Wtewael’s copper can explicitly illustrate the very sensuality against which it may warn.
1 A similar pendant dating from around 1600 with the same three pendant pearls and enamelled centre is to be found in the Wtewael's Mars and Venus surprised by Vulcan in the Getty Museum, which dates to around 1606–10 (Lowenthal 1995, p. 6, reproduced fig. 7). A similar jewelled pendant, appropriately containing the figures of Mars and Venus survives in the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection, Madrid. Dating from around 1600 the design is reminiscent of the French designer Jean Cousin the Younger and Ambrose Dubois.
2 Aigremont, Volkserotik und Pflanzenwelt, 1: 59–68
3 K. Van Mander, Het Schilder-boeck: The Lives of the Illustrious Netherlandish and German Painters, 1603–04, H. Midema (ed.), Doornspijk 1994, vol. I (text), fol. 296v–297r, pp. 445–46.
4 For these see Lowenthal 1986, pp. 97and 117, nos. A-18 and A-44, and Lowenthal 1995, p. 1, fig. 1 et passim.
5 See Lowenthal 1997, no. 48, reproduced.
6 A. Bredius and O. Hirschmann, Künstler-Inventare : Urkunden zur Geschichte der holländischen Kunst des XVIten, XVIIten und XVIIIten Jahrhunderts, 4 vols, The Hague 1915–21, vol. II, no. 396.
7 See M.J. Bok, 'Art-Lovers and their Paintings. Van Mander's Schilder-boeck as a source for the History of the Art Market in the Northern Netherlands', in Dawn of the Golden Age. Northern Netherlandish Art 1580–1620, exh. cat., Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum, 1993–94, Appendix I, p. 158. Nicquet's collection then passed by inheritance to the brothers Gerard and Jan Reynst.
8 See A.-M. S. Logan, The Cabinet of the brothers Gerard and Jan Reynst, Amsterdam 1979, pp. 15–17.
9 Zedekunst, dat is, wellevenskunste, 1586, cited by Lowenthal, 1986, p. 60.
10 E. de Jonge, ‘Erotica in vogelperspectief, De dubbelzinningheid van een reeks 17de eeuwse genrevoorstellingen’, in Simiolus, 3, 1968–69, pp. 60–62.
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