In 1784 and 1785 Reynolds exhibited two works at the Royal Academy which, in Martin Postle's words, were 'more ambitious than his usual fancy pictures, yet less intellectually demanding than history paintings'. The first was A Nymph and Cupid, the exhibited version of which was bought by Lord Carysfort, Ambassador at St. Petersburg. Carysfort arranged for a second version to be painted for Prince Grigori Potemkin and a third version remained in the artist's studio. The second composition was Venus and Cupid of which there are two versions, one of which is now in the Rosenblum collection and the other is the picture here offered for sale. In 1785 Reynolds also produced a variant on the subject, Venus and the Piping Boy with a similar reclining female figure but a boy with a pipe replacing the figure of Cupid. Two versions of this also exist, one which belonged to Angerstein in the 1790s and one which entered a British private collection in the nineteenth century.
At the time that the first Venus was exhibited at the Royal Academy, the April 8, 1785 Morning Herald reported:
'Sir Joshua's Venus is placed at the entrance of the gallery to catch the eye, and invite the foot of sensibility, on to the contemplation of his other pictures. Her eye is full of wanton magic, the warmth of love is on her cheek and her limbs are disposed so as to possess every abstraction...'
The critic was however less complimentary about the figure of Cupid, and for The General Advertiser, the naked body of Venus caused some disapproval: '...it may not be amiss to remind the artist who has so wantonly displayed the bosom of a woman in the great room, that a little more decency would have had a much better effect'.
It is interesting to note that Reynolds was not wholly satisfied with the picture and wrote on 30th May to the Duke of Rutland:
'I have made the landscape as well as I could in the manner of Titian. Though it meets with the approbation of my friends, it is not what it ought to be nor what I should make it. The next I paint I am more confident will be better...'
The existence of at least one other version of this first Venus subject is indicated by The Morning Herald of January 20, 1787: 'The King of France has purchased the Joshua Reynolds Original Picture of The Wanton Bacchante - usually styled The Venus'. It is uncertain whether, in the turmoil of the French Revolution, the picture ever entered the French Royal collection.
The Venus of 1785 was the first attempt by Reynolds to paint a nude female figure in a quasi erotic form. The face of Venus was apparently modelled on the daughter of his servant Ralph Kirkley but the composition was heavily influenced by Titian. Titian was an artist whom Reynolds greatly admired and he copied Titian's Venus and Cupid with a Lute Playter (now in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge) in 1759 when it belonged to the Duke of Orleans. The subject was clearly of great interest to his aristocratic clientele and was also greatly to the French taste. The Duke of Dorset apparently purchased one of the versions of Venus and the Piping Boy for a French marquis.