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'Venus Chiding Cupid for Learning to Cast Accounts', by Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792)


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About the artwork

In this painting, Venus is shown with her son Cupid (also known as Eros) who embodied sensual, earthly love and a second child, presumably his brother and counterpart Anteros, who symbolised spiritual, virtuous love. Venus has taken Cupid's weapon, the dart, which he shoots at unsuspecting mortals to make them fall in love. This is punishment for the crime he has committed. He has neglected his duties as a spreader of love and has spent his time learning to do sums, seen on the sheet of accounts he holds.

Without his dart, Cupid is a sad, emasculated little figure; but the tone of the painting as a whole is light-hearted and witty. It is a new take on one of the most familiar mythological subjects in western art. There had been many images of Venus scolding Cupid and clipping his wings, or Eros having a tussle with his brother Anteros. The idea that Cupid's crime is an interest in money, however, is Reynolds's own. Reynolds may have been having a sly dig at the loveless lives of people who married for money, a common practice in the circles of high-spending young men who were the picture's anticipated audience. And it is possible he may even have been having a little fun at his own expense. The figures on Cupid's account sheet appear to be the prices Reynolds charged for various sizes of painting and frame. Could he be commenting upon his own status as a confirmed old bachelor whom love has passed by, as a result of his too-eager pursuit of professional success and with it, financial security?

Reynolds painted Venus subjects on numerous occasions. Indeed, this canvas is a later version of a painting he originally exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1771, now in the collection of English Heritage at Kenwood House, Hampstead. The earlier painting was smaller and square in format. This may suggest that it was intended as part of a decorative scheme. The whole effect is lighter and brighter, with Venus's swirling drapery more prominent and the figures have a rather cramped feel. In the Lady Lever painting, there is more attention to contrasts of light and shade, more space around the figures, and a more pleasing treatment of Venus's right arm. One simple explanation might be that in making the second picture, Reynolds felt he could improve on the first one, making the subject more convincing and 'Old Master'-like. His handling of paint in this work is especially rich and textural.

Reynolds was obviously conscious of the dangers of his mythological pictures appearing to patrons and critics as dry exercises in theory. In order to make them marketable, he often chose subjects that, as here, had distinctly erotic overtones. Painting Venus was an accepted way for artists to portray the female nude, as generations of connoisseurs had long understood. Reynolds was appealing to this awareness even as he took care to treat the subject with humour and intellectual sophistication. Given that the depiction of Venus had been uncommon within traditional British art, it could be said that in works like this Reynolds was first and foremost persuading British patrons that they had now grown up to the level of their continental counterparts.

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Sir Joshua Reynolds is one of the best-known names in British art. He was one of the great portraitists of Europe in the second half of the 18th century. His works and his fame spread across the continent through prints of his paintings. He was also the first President of the Royal Academy, founded in 1768. This institution, under the patronage of King George III, played a key role in the professionalisation of art in Britain. It gave artists greater social and intellectual status and created a 'national school'. Reynolds, although he actually distrusted the politics of Royal patronage, was almost universally perceived by his contemporaries as the figurehead of the Academy. His fame as an artist was indivisible from his fame as 'the President'.

Reynolds, born in 1723, came from Devon. His father was a clergyman and master of the local grammar school, so he was brought up in an atmosphere of learning. His love of books and philosophical debate remained one of his strongest characteristics throughout his life, and he was friendlier with literary men, such as Doctor Johnson, James Boswell and Oliver Goldsmith, than he was with his fellow-artists. His strongest impulse as an artist lay in proving that painting was one of the liberal arts, whose greatness came from the thought that went into it, rather than a craft or skill.

Technically, Reynolds was a flawed artist, as many of his contemporaries came to realise. He was never a great draughtsman. He disguised his limitations as a painter under a liking for experimentation with colours and glazes. He justified this to himself as a way of recreating the styles of the Old Masters. This was a key part of Reynolds's intellectual stance. Regarding the taste of the British public for art as limited, he believed that by imitating the Old Masters he would help educate patrons. But realistically, he also recognised that their taste could not be 'improved' overnight. He continued to work largely in the field of portraits, which were what British patrons most wanted. For a long time he limited the way he imitated the artists of the past, only gradually expanding his repertoire. He was annoyed when younger rivals such as Gainsborough and Romney rocked the boat, even while he recognised their abilities.

After he was chosen as the first President of the Royal Academy, Reynolds felt under pressure to adopt a more orthodox approach to history painting, which academic theory regarded as the highest branch of art. Before 1768, he had contented himself with adopting a 'historical' style in a number of his most prestigious portraits, ones which were likely to be seen by a large number of people and might be engraved as prints.

The Lady Lever's full-length 'Duchess of Hamilton and Argyll' (1758-60) is one of the most celebrated examples of this, with the figure's air of a classical sculpture and its subtle allusions to Venus. However, from around 1770, Reynolds began regularly to paint actual mythological subjects. In 'Venus Chiding Cupid' Venus appears as herself, the Goddess of Love, rather than as a famous beauty at the court of George III.