This work, painted on copper plate, is a variant of an earlier, larger painting on canvas by Bilivert in the Gemäldegalerie, Dresden (fig. 1) which Roberto Contini (see Literature) dates to between 1630 and 1633. There is also a preparatory drawing for the composition in the Gallerie degli Uffizi, Florence (fig. 2) which, in format, more closely resembles the present work than that of the squarer Dresden painting.1 Bilivert’s pupil, Orazio Fidani recorded (sometime before 1656) that Bilivert executed a pair of pictures — each measuring four braccia high — for Charles I, King of England: "He painted for the king of England two paintings four braccia high, one showing the council of Psyche and the other Venus with Cupid washing her legs, and the god Pan is also there holding up a cloak. He executed these paintings with extraordinary sweetness, and they were so well liked that he had numerous copies made for various friends of his."2 A number of these contemporary copies are known and attest to the popularity of the composition.3 This beautiful small-scale version was most likely executed for a private patron shortly after the larger painting’s completion. The inscription scratched into the reverse of the copper plate is very likely done by Bilivert himself to distinguish it from the copies produced by his workshop. Until recently, only one other painting on copper by the artist was known — The Temptation of Charles and Ubaldo in the Musée du Louvre, Paris (fig. 3).4 In Venus, Cupid and Pan, the copper medium is perfectly suited to Bilivert’s brilliant brushwork and vivid color palette, and the intimate scale enhances the sensual subject matter.
Bilivert was born in Florence into an artistic family of Dutch origin. His father Jacques, a goldsmith, had left Delft as a young man to supervise the metal workshops of Grand Duke Francesco I de’Medici. Through his father’s connections with the important Medici family, Giovanni Bilivert secured an apprenticeship with Lodovico Cigoli and accompanied him to Rome between 1604-1608. After his return to Florence he enrolled in the Academia del Disegno and eventually presided over one of the most successful workshops in the city. Among his pupils were Orazio Fidani, Baccio del Bianco and Francesco Furini. Indeed, Furini’s style would greatly influence that of his master from circa 1630 onwards and the younger artist’s more sensual approach to subject matter can be discerned in Venus, Cupid and Pan.
1. Two other drawings have been associated with this composition. The first, in the Musée du Louvre, Paris (Inv. no. 563; black chalk with highlights, 145 by 134 mm.), shows a study for a female head turned in profile and looking slightly downwards, at an angle very similar to that of Venus here, and is likely therefore to have been executed in preparation for this figure ; the second, in the National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh, relates to the whole composition but is certainly a copy (Inv. D 1639; red chalk (arched top), 124 by 223 mm.).
2. "Fece per il re d'Inghilterra due quadri di quattro braccia, dentrovi in uno il consiglio di Psiche e ne l'altro una Venere che Amore gli lava le gambe e ci è un Dio Pane che li serba il manto. Dipinse questi quadri con una dolcezza straordinaria, e piaqquono sì che ne fu fatte fare molte copie per diversi amici sua," see O. Fidani, in F. Baldinucci, Notizie dei Professori del Disegno da Cimabue in Qua, ed. P. Barocchi, Florence 1975, vol. VII, p. 70. The disparity between the Dresden painting's dimensions (191 cm.) and those recorded by Fidani as four braccia (approx. 232 cm.) may be explained by the fact that the Dresden painting has been reduced, particularly along the top.
3. Amongst these are the painting sold, New York, Christie's, 9-10 February 2009, lot 58 (as Circle of Bilivert; oil on canvas, 191.7 by 146.1 cm.); and that formerly at Potsdam, Bildergalerie von Sanssouci (inv. no. 7623, destroyed during World War II), almost certainly painted in Bilivert's studio and with possible participation of the master himself (oil on canvas, 207.5 by 168 cm.).
4. A third painting on copper, in a private collection, depicting Minerva has been identified as a work by Bilivert by Federico Berti, see under Literature, p. 11, reproduced p. 12, fig. 3.
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