Pompeo Girolamo Batoni (Lucca 1708-1787 Rome)
Pompeo Girolamo Batoni (Lucca 1708-1787 Rome)

Venus Caressing Cupid

Pompeo Girolamo Batoni (Lucca 1708-1787 Rome)
Venus Caressing Cupid
signed, inscribed and dated 'P. BATONI PINXIT ROMAE ANNO 1774.' (lower center, on the base of bed)
oil on canvas
53 x 39 in. (134.6 x 99.1 cm.)
In a fine gilt Roman Maratta frame
Glennie sale; Sotheby's, London, 18 July 1928, lot 69 (to Waters).
with Habolt, Paris, where purchased by the present owner in 1995.
E. Emmerling, Pompeo Batoni, sein Leben und Werk, Cologne, 1932, p. 127, no. 163.
A.M. Clark, ed., E.P. Bowron, Pompeo Batoni, A Complete Catalogue of his Works, Oxford, 1985, p. 331, no. 370, fig. 337.

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Lot Essay

Little is known of the early history of Batoni's exquisite mythological painting, Venus Caressing Cupid, other than what the artist himself tells us in the inscription that he has placed at the foot of the goddess's bed: P. BATONI PINXIT ROMAE ANNO 1774 (Painted by P. Batoni in Rome in 1774). The artist's patron is yet unidentified and no owner of the work was known before it appeared at auction in London in the first part of the twentieth century. However, as Batoni was long-established as the most celebrated painter in Rome and one of the most famous in Europe, the original owner of Venus Caressing Cupid would likely have been a collector of great wealth and prominence. Indeed, by 1774, Batoni concentrated on portraiture almost to the exclusion of subject pictures, and he would likely have undertaken the present composition only for a member of the European nobility prepared to pay extravagantly to obtain it.

Interestingly, a decade later, the elderly Batoni produced a variant version of the composition, and we are able to deduce something of Batoni's intentions for the present painting from what we know about its well-documented later version. The second version was commissioned by Prince Nicolay Borisovich Yusupov (1751-1831), one of the biggest landowners in Russia and sole heir to an immense fortune. Yusupov is remembered as the preeminent collector of European art in his country at the end of the 18th century, and was well-disposed to the emerging neoclassical taste in both French and Italian painting. He made the Grand Tour in 1774-1777 (when he might possibly have seen the present painting in Batoni's studio) and arranged for Batoni to paint the portraits of the Grand Duke Paul and his wife in 1782, when the royal couple visited Rome (accompanied by Yusupov). From 1784 to 1789, Yusupov served as Russian ambassador to Turin and the Holy See, during which time he acquired numerous works from contemporary Roman painters including Anton von Maron, Jacob Phillipp Hackert and Angelika Kauffmann, as well as Batoni.

Yusupov's version of Venus Caressing Cupid (Odessa Museum of Western and Oriental Art; Clark/Bowron, no. 451) is recorded in Batoni's studio on 2 March 1784, and is described as completed in a letter of 24 July 1784 from the painter to his patron; in the letter, Batoni elucidates the subject of the picture in a description that applies equally to the present, primary version:

'It represents Cupid and his Mother, who suckled him at her breast. He is in the act of rising up to give a kiss to his Mother, and she is embracing him and putting her hand on his chin, and seems to say, Bravo my cute little one, you carry yourself well, may the Gods bless you and may others see your worth. This is a very elegant subject, joyful, and since the Venus is nude but wise, she is modest.' (See Clark/Bowron under no. 451, pp. 361-2.)

Batoni's ostensible subject is the Goddess of Love indicating to Cupid that he is ready to assume his role as Love's messenger among the mortals, but more universally, it is that of a loving mother setting her maturing child on his way in the world. The following year, Batoni completed a pendant for Yusupov depicting Venus Instructing Cupid in the finer points of archery (Archangelskoye Palace, outside Moscow; Clark/Bowron. 452).

According to a letter of 2 September 1786 written by J.G. Puhlmann (1751-1826), one of Batoni's most trusted studio assistants, Yusupov returned to the artist as unsatisfactory one of the paintings that Batoni had produced for him (the painting cannot be identified), and the artist occasionally faced such dissatisfaction in his final years, when advanced age and ill health had diminished his vigor and he relied increasingly on workshop assistants to complete his canvases. (see J-G Puhlmann, Ein Potsdamer Maler in Rom. Briefe des Batoni-Schulers Johann Gottlieb Puhlmann aus den Jahren 1774 bis 1787, Berlin, 1979, p. 214.) No such complaint could be made against the present painting, however, executed when Batoni possessed all of his considerable powers of invention, and his hand still capable of producing the supple and polished surface effects for which he was admired. Indeed, the tender and lovingly observed expression of Cupid, the regal but warm and maternal bearing of Venus, and the poignant intimacy of their gestures -- all cast in soft, blond tonalities and honeyed light -- make Venus Caressing Cupid one of the artist's most pleasing inventions.

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