Four other versions of the subject on copper are known: one in the Mauritshuis, The Hague, is dated 1601; another in the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, is datable circa 1606-10; another sold London, Christie’s, 3 July 2012, lot 8 (for £4,100,000) is dated 1610; and a small oval is recorded in 1933 but not otherwise known.1 While substantially larger than these four other known versions, the present version differs most markedly from them in its horizontal format, and in the greater subtlety of its subject. Where in the two earliest versions in the Getty and Mauritshuis Mars and Venus are discovered in flagrante and the gods openly mock them with laughter, here their interrupted union is suggested merely by their nakedness and the overlapping of a leg, while the gods’ open laughter has given way to smiles. Whether this change is a result of a patron’s wishes or an artistic impulse on the part of Wtewael is impossible to say, but the fact that the recently discovered 1610 version is neither as explicit as its predecessors, not quite as subtle as the present 1611 version, would suggest that it has more to do with a progressive rumination within the artist’s mind, itself probably in response to the growing Calvinist puritanism that pervaded Utrecht at the time.
The subject is treated very similarly in all versions. In a prior and separate scene Vulcan is seen through a door in the back fashioning a fine metal mesh. In the foreground Mercury, who envied Mars his relationship with Venus, reveals the two of them interrupted from their union under an elaborate canopy while Cupid, who had instigated the affair, hovers above. Vulcan, wearing the same hat in the Getty and ex-Christie’s version, readies his mesh. Other gods, not always the same from version to version, jostle for a view. Here Ceres pulls back the rearmost drape and Apollo swoops down from above to peel back another. The scene is full of erotic innuendo, not least in Mercury’s placement of his right hand on the pudenda of the caryatid bedpost, and, despite the mythological subject, it makes several references to contemporary life in the furnishings which are for the most part contemporary in style to the painting.
The painting was discovered in 2001 having been unknown to Anne Lowenthal when compiling her 1986 catalogue of Wtewael’s oeuvre, and to all previous scholars. At the time of its discovery it was thought to be identifiable with the painting by the artist in the 1826 sale of the collector Paul-Jean Pletinckz in Brussels: ‘lot 32. Mars and Venus surprised by the gods; charming painting; by Joachim Untewael, 1610’. However, the discovery of the painting sold at Christie’s in 2012, itself dated 1610, makes that painting far more likely to be identifiable with the Pletinckz picture.
1. It was sold Berlin, Internationales Kunsthaus, 9 May 1933, lot 244.
Please call 1-800-555-5555 to order a print catalog for this sale.
Online Registration to Bid is Closed for this Sale. Would you like to watch the live sale?Watch Live Sale