Once part of the celebrated collection of John Bouverie, this well-preserved sheet is a fine addition to Guercino’s œuvre. It shows a reclining Venus, with Cupid to her left and a satyr to her right lifting the drapery covering her body. Nicholas Turner has dated the sheet to around 1615-1617. He points out that in handling, and indeed in the pose of Venus, it may be compared to a drawing of The dead Christ with an angel, dated around 1617-1618, in the Royal Collection, Windsor (inv. 902755; see D. Mahon and N. Turner, The Drawings of Guercino in the Collection of Her Majesty the Queen at Windsor Castle, Cambridge, 1989, no. 3, pl. 3). Guercino often reused the pose of a figure, regardless of sex; another instance may be the female nude seen in another drawing at the Royal Collection, which is again rather close, especially in the crossed legs (inv. 902413; see ibid., no. 232, pl. 216).
Turner furthermore suggests that the present sheet could have been an early compositional sketch for a fresco at the Casa Pannini in Cento showing Venus nursing Cupid with Mars in a Chariot, now in the Pinacoteca Civica, Cento (see P. Bagni, Guercino a Cento. Le decorazione di Casa Pannini, Bologna, 1984, p. 143, pl. 115). In the process of developing the composition, Guercino has shaded out the satyr in the background, possibly to replace him with Mars, as seen in the fresco. The drawing may have previously been closer in shape to the final fresco and Turner has also pointed out that the loosely indicated ledge along the lower edge might have been drawn with the fresco in mind. Interestingly, the sheet is incised for transfer suggesting that the drawing was intended to be engraved, possibly by Guercino's in-house engraver Giovanni Battista Pasqualini. However, no print corresponding to the drawing has yet been identified.
Relatively little is known about the short-lived John Bouverie (he died aged about 28), who was one of the greatest collectors of his time. He is known to have been a widely-travelled antiquarian and collector, and besides multiple journeys to Italy he travelled to Turkey in what would turn out to be a fatal journey (N. Turner, 'John Bouverie as a collector of drawings', The Burlington Magazine, XCCCVI, 1994, no. 1091, pp. 90-9). His first Grand Tour to Italy took place at the age of only 17 or 19, and during this journey he bought his first group of Guercino drawings which were bound in an album and came from the Gennari family, descendants of Guercino's nephews (ibid., p. 95). Through his extensive network, Bouverie continued buying old master drawings in Italy, and also in England, most notably at the sale of the collection of Jonathan Richardson Sr. in 1747. Bouverie’s collection passed by descent to the Earl of Gainsborough and the first group of drawings from the collection was offered at Christie’s in 1859 (see Provenance). Drawings offered in this sale carry the distinctive stamp ‘B’, probably applied by the cataloguer in charge of this sale. A further group of drawings from the collection was offered, again at Christie’s, in 1922.
We are very grateful to Nicholas Turner for his assistance in cataloguing this drawing and for confirming the attribution to Guercino.