A farcical tale of Olympian adultery, the story of Vulcan's betrayal by Venus and Mars was first told by Homer in the Odyssey (8:226-367), then recounted in the Metamorphoses of Ovid (4:171-189). Venus, goddess of love, married to Vulcan, the god of fire and lame blacksmith of the gods, cuckolded her husband with Mars, the god of war, laying with him in her palace. Apollo was the first to discover the divine infidelity, since, as sun-god, he saw everything before anyone else, and, 'indignant at their actions, he showed Vulcan how they were misbehaving. Vulcan's senses reeled, and the iron he was forging fell from his hand. At once he began to fashion slender bronze chains, nets and snares which the eye could not see. The thinnest threads spun on the loom, or cobwebs hanging from the rafters are no finer than was that workmanship. Moreover, he made them so that they would yield to the lightest touch, and to the smallest movement. These he set skillfully around his bed'. To set his trap, he announced that he was briefly returning to Lemnos, his birthplace, and waited for Mars to appear surreptitiously at Venus's bedside. 'When his wife and her lover lay down together upon that couch, they were caught by the chains, ingeniously fastened there by her husband's skill, and were held fast in the very act of embracing. Immediately, the Lemnian Vulcan flung open the ivory doors, and admitted the gods. There lay Mars and Venus, close bound together, a shameful sight. The gods were highly amused; one of them prayed that he might be so shamed. They laughed aloud, and for long this was the bestknown story in the whole of heaven'. The vengeful Lady of Cythera was decidedly not amused however, and she cursed Apollo to suffer a furious passion for the beautiful but doomed maiden, Leucothoe. Likewise, Mars would punish the youth he entrusted to guard the door against the approach of the sun, but who fell asleep on the job: Alectryon was to be transformed into a rooster, henceforth to forever crow at the arrival of dawn.
Joachim Wtewael's copper panel -- smaller than the page of a book -- brings the scene to vivid life with energy, spirit and an attention to detail that Ovid would surely have envied. The unfaithful couple is surprised by the untimely appearance of the gods in Venus's bedchamber immediately after their carnal relations have ceased (perhaps prematurely). It is the very instant when Vulcan, pulling off the sheath of filigreed bronze netting that has entrapped them, exposes them to the Olympian onlookers in all their disgrace. Still embracing, their genitals only lightly veiled with rumpled bedding, the lovers are obviously startled by the intrusion: a bleary-eyed Venus peers up from her bed with befuddlement at the admonishing figure of Mercury -- he descending from the heavens in a wide-brimmed red hat and brandishing his caduceus; Mars looks to his left, his face just beginning to redden and contort with anger, toward the flying figure of Apollo, who lifts the parted, emerald-coloured bed curtains, revealing the lovers to the gods behind him -- Jupiter (on his eagle), old Saturn, god of Time, who gapes at the couple over his scythe, and the chaste goddess of the hunt, Diana (her hair ornamented with a crescent moon) -- who arrive at the scene on a cloud. Cupid kneels on the parquet floor, aiming love's arrow at Mercury, who had readily admitted, to the amusement of the assembled gods, that he would gladly change places with Mars. Airborne beside Mercury is Minerva, the helmeted goddess of Wisdom, who also lifts the bed curtains, and approaching Venus from the other side of the bed is another female figure, uncertainly identified, but perhaps Juno, the stately queen of the gods of Olympus. Wtewael departed from the classical sources by including female deities in the scene; indeed, Homer specifies that 'the goddesses, constrained by feminine modesty, all stayed home'. However, their presence serves to intensify the adulterous lovers' shame in discovery, as well as offering the artist a welcome excuse to include more naked female forms.
This unpublished and previously unknown panel of Mars and Venus Surprised by Vulcan has been instantly recognized as an indisputable masterpiece of Wtewael's art, and among the greatest and most sublime examples of the final, heroic phase of Dutch Mannerist painting, its glowing gemstone palette, contrived spatial design and acrobatically convoluted poses are rendered all the more impressive by the miniature scale to which the artist has confined himself. Ingeniously conceived, inventively and audaciously designed and executed with an almost microscopically perfect surface polish, the painting ideally embodies the full scope of Wtewael's accomplishment in part because of its nearly perfect, untouched state of conservation, which allows every nuance of its refined finish to be read as the artist intended.
Meticulously signed and dated 1610, the present painting appears to be at least the third occasion on which Wtewael took up the subject of Mars and Venus Surprised by Vulcan on a small-scale copper executed with a miniaturist level of finish. Wtewael's first attempt at telling the ancient story may have been in a painting that is signed and dated 1601 in the Mauritshuis, The Hague (fig. 1). However, another equally fine example, signed by Wtewael but not dated, is in the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles (fig. 2). Based on its style, the Getty painting has been dated by Anne W. Lowenthal to circa 1606-1610 (Lowenthal, Joachim Wtewael and Dutch Mannerism, Doornspijk, 1986, p. 117), although other scholars (see for instance B. Broos, Meesterwerk in het Mauritshuis, The Hague, 1987, p. 41) speculate that it could have been made earlier, even slightly preceding the Mauritshuis picture in execution. Wtewael's friend and biographer, Karel van Mander, writing shortly before 1604, mentioned two versions of the subject known to him from the artist's hand. One, 'an excellent, small, upright painting on copper -- Mars and Venus' had only recently been delivered to Jan van Weely, a prominent merchant in Amsterdam, and was described as 'full of charming, fine work, and so detailed, for the eye enjoys discerning, wonderfully clearly, a table, a couch or bed, with all the gods, and many cupids in the clouds.' He adds that 'another Mars and Venus also by him [Wtewael] is with Melchoir Wijntgis', the mint-master of Zeeland who lived in Middelburg. If one attributes the discrepancies in Van Mander's description to his writing from memory, it seems likely that the Van Weely copper, delivered around 1604, was the newly finished Getty painting, while Wijntgis already had his version of the subject, the picture now in the Mauritshuis.
Because the Getty and Mauritshuis paintings share with the present lot the same copper support and nearly identical dimensions, it makes it impossible to assign certain early references -- some of them insufficiently specific -- to any one of the three versions. The earliest certain provenance established for the present painting thus far traces it to 1796 when it appeared in the sale of Jacob van der Lely, Councilman and Mayor of Delft, where it is recorded as having been purchased for 13 florins by Gerrit van der Pot van Groeneveld (1732-1807), a wealthy merchant in the sugar trade and a renowned art collector residing in Rotterdam and Groeneveld. At the sale of his collection in 1808, a major buyer was the newly created Rijksmuseum, which laid the foundation of its holdings with 65 purchases. In the sale catalogue, his painting of Mars and Venus by Wtewael is precisely described with its dimensions; crucially, Cupid is said to be 'resting on one knee, firing his arrow upwards', establishing with certainty that it was the present painting, the only version of the subject in which the god of Love is earthbound. From there, it went to Belgium, appearing in the sale of Jean-Paul Pletinckx in Brussels in 1826, where it was lot 32, 'Mars and Venus surprised by the gods; charming painting; by Joachim Untewael, 1610'. It reappeared less than ten years later at Christie's, London in the sale of Sir Charles Bagot, an English diplomat and colonial administrator who served as Governor-General of Canada (1841-1843), as lot 4, 'Utewaal, 1610. Mars and Venus -- on copper', where it was purchased by the Paris dealer, C.J. Nieuwenhuys. It is not known how or when it entered the collection of Maurice Abram de Zincourt (1836-1908), a collector in Nancy, but it remained with him, passing by descent through succeeding generations of his heirs to the present day.
Nor is it known why Wtewael returned to the subject so often, and over an extended period of time. (Yet a fourth, considerably larger and horizontal version of the subject has appeared recently on the London art market, signed and dated 1611 and measuring 38 x 52 cm.). Ovid's tale was popular and widely available to the Dutch public through prose translations such as that of Johannes Florianus, which was first published in 1552 and had been reprinted seven times through the first decades of the seventeenth century. One must presume that Wtewael found a ready market of collectors eager to own his witty and imaginative interpretations of Ovid's story. Certainly its wry humour and large cast of heroically nude figures lent itself to being visualised by a painter of his particular talents.
Remarkable, however, was his resistance to taking the easy path -- simple replication. In each version, Wtewael entirely reconceived his subject, with wholly reoriented compositions, new and differently posed figures, and completely remodeled furnishings, rendering each version of the subject fresh and unique. As a creative artist famed for the fecundity of his imagination as well as his technical virtuosity, it may have been a point of pride to never simply repeat himself.
Although he was an artist of striking originality, Wtewael often looked to important influences in earlier art. In the present painting, his composition is closely modeled on a design of the same subject engraved in 1585 by the Haarlem Mannerist painter and printmaker Hendrick Goltzius (1558-1617): the orientation of the bed, Cupid's position on the floor, the distant background vignette of Cyclops working the hot anvil in Vulcan's forge, are all found in more or less the same fashion in Goltzius's large-scale print (fig. 3). Most significant, the gently entwined bodies of Mars and Venus are posed almost identically to the way Goltzius had arranged them, side-by-side, in a considerably more modest display than Wtewael had chosen for his earlier interpretations of the subject, where the lovers were caught fully engaged in the act of coitus. In his youth, Wtewael spent four years travelling in Italy and France with his patron, Charles de Bourgneuf de Cucé, Bishop of Saint-Malo, and had the opportunity to study the complex but lyrical compositions of the painters of the School of Fontainebleau, as well as the unnaturally contorted and fantastically muscled nudes of Michelangelo. In the Getty Mars and Venus, Wtewael would model the goddess of Love on the figure of Night above the Tomb of Giuliano de' Medici, as Anne Lowenthal noted (op. cit., p. 38); in the present painting his quotation from Michelangelo would be direct but more discreet: carved in wood on the headboard of Venus's bed are the figures of both Night and Day. Beyond this small tribute, however, almost every writhing nude in this picture can be said to pay homage to the genius of Michelangelo; can anyone imagine the aging but powerful musculature of Vulcan, or the uninhibited display of Mercury's finely shaped buttocks without the precedent of the Sistine Chapel decorations?
As masterly and well-observed as Wtewael's depictions of the nude in motion were his recreations of fabrics, metalwork and objects of luxury, and most of the opulent furnishings of Venus's boudoir in the present painting could plausibly be found in a luxurious seventeenth-century Dutch bedroom.
On the floor in front of the table is the contemporary suit of armour that Mars had hastily stripped off. It is identical to the armour represented in the Getty painting that Anne Lowenthal has recognised as Western European in origin -- possibly Italian or French -- and datable to circa 1585-1595. The suit, similar to one made for Sir James Scudamore that Lowenthal located in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, consists of a red cloth-lined breastplate and backplate with tassel attached, a pauldron, gauntlets and helmet (Lowenthal, Joachim Wtewael, Mars and Venus Surprised by Vulcan, Malibu, 1995, pp. 6-8); it is the sort of armour that one can imagine being hammered into shape on Vulcan's anvil. The extraordinarily ornate bed, with its carved mahogany headboard, sculpted canopy hung with heavy silk-lined, green velvet draperies, and richly coffered frame seems to reflect printed designs that inspired furniture makers of the era. The twisting poster at the foot of the bed resembles a similarly intertwined column supporting the bed's canopy in the Getty picture, which Lowenthal compares to a fanciful composite column in a plate of Gabriel Krammer's Architectura, first published in Prague in 1600 and dedicated to the Hapsburg emperor, Rudolf II. The masks, classical frieze, and bare-breasted sphinx at the foot of the bed frame resemble ornamental designs from the pages of Crispijn van de Passe II's Oficina arcularia, a popular pattern book published in Amsterdam in 1642 (op. cit., pp. 8-9).
For Lowenthal, these luxurious domestic objects must be understood 'on both the narrative and symbolic level, a habit of thought to which the Dutch were inclined in their search for universal truths in the particulars of daily life' (op. cit., p. 17). For example, despite the precious metals with which the ewer and basin were made, they serve the humble function of holding cleansing waters. As such, they can be seen as a symbol of spiritual purification and their presence in the painting as an antidote to the adulterous act that is central to the story. For Van Mander, the moral lesson to be drawn from the tale was clear: 'Nothing on earth can protect an evil, godless man from the vengeful hand of God, so that in the end, no matter how long it takes, he will be paid for his misdeeds. It is also a sure thing that one can conceal one's evildoing from men but not from God, who clearly sees into the depths of our hearts and knows our hidden thoughts and desires. Thus there is nothing like a clear conscience, by means of a blameless upright life, to make a man rejoice over gentle peace of mind, unafraid of divine or human wrath. So this story of Mars, who left Jupiter's service and the company of all the gods to be with Venus, illustrates to us how those who abandon God to follow lustful ways come to shame'. An inscription beneath Goltzius's engraving of the subject interprets its moral meaning in much the same way.
Although Wtewael would have been aware of such readings and might have appreciated the different layers of meaning that his paintings could suggest to his contemporaries, even a casual look at Mars and Venus surprised by Vulcan indicates that the bawdy humour, eroticism and sensuality of the subject were the artist's principal inspirations, and producing an image of irresistibly seductive charm was his intent. Certainly the startling carnality of the paintings has never been lost on observers, regardless of the era in which they were living, and Wtewael's various depictions of Mars, Venus and Vulcan have endured the vicissitudes of changing mores and shifting social attitudes to the representation and display of explicitly erotic art. Elaborate preparatory drawings survive for both the Mauritshuis and Getty paintings (none is known for the present composition), and these two sheets were both mutilated by the nineteenth century, the bodies of the amorous couple having been crudely excised from each (Florence, Galleria degli Uffizi; and private collection). Indeed, the Getty painting was hidden behind a hinged cover when it was in the Stroganoff collection in Saint Petersburg in the nineteenth century, remaining in that state until 1945; when Anne Lowenthal first saw it in 1972, it was tucked away from view in a leather binder. The Mauritshuis received its painting in 1822 from the collections of the House of Orange, but kept it off exhibition until 1983 in order 'to protect an immature public from itself', as one scholar observed. The present trend to greater openness in the public display of erotic art has meant that Wtewael's exquisite and amusing, and ultimately joyful, renderings of the secrets, pleasures and intrigues of carnal desire have a wider and more appreciative audience than ever before.
Our thanks to Anne W. Lowenthal for examining the painting and confirming its attribution; she will include it in the new edition of her catalogue raisonné, Joachim Wtewael and Dutch Mannerism, forthcoming.