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'Venus and Anchises', by Sir William Blake Richmond (1842 - 1921)


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About the artwork

'Venus and Anchises' was inspired by a verse from a poem called the 'Epipsychidion', by Shelley.

'Athwart that wintry wilderness of thorns
Flashed from her motion splendour like the morn's,
And from her presence life was radiated
Through the grey earth and branches bare and dead;
So that her way was paved and roofed above
With flowers as soft as thoughts of budding love;'

Richmond shows us the meeting at night, of Venus and her earthly lover, the Trojan shepherd Anchises, on Mount Ida. Venus, clothed in glowing pink and gold walks towards Anchises, who awaits her holding a lyre. Anchises, clad in a red shirt, appears to cower in the shadow of a tree. The usual penalty for mortals such as he for looking at a god or goddess was to be turned into stone.

The picture is not a simple illustration of a mythical event, but demonstrates the transforming power of love. Night has turned into day. In the bottom right of the picture there are the dead leaves of autumn, but wherever Venus walks she becomes surrounded by spring flowers and apple blossom. She is accompanied by lions and a flight of doves which disperse a group of sparrows. Although the event depicted is rooted in ancient Greek mythology, Richmond chooses to show the dramatic awakening of a northern landscape in an English spring. The offspring of the union between Venus and Anchises was Aeneas, the legendary ancestor of the Romans.

Richmond's classical subjects were noted for the degree of accuracy in both architecture and landscape. He travelled extensively in Greece and Italy. In 1912 and 1914 he exhibited his landscape paintings, mainly Italian, which were widely praised. In 1919 his book 'Assisi: Impressions of Half a Century' was published, illustrated with his landscape studies in colour. It was perhaps his knowledge and enthusiasm for Italian art and history that led him to undertake the commission to decorate St. Paul's Cathedral with mosaics. This work was controversial, as it is uncertain whether the architect Wren ever considered such a scheme for his great church.

This picture was exhibited in London and Birmingham in 1890 and in Berlin in 1891. When it was shown at the Walker in the Autumn Exhibition of 1892, the gallery bought the painting for £800.

William Blake Richmond was a most versatile artist. He was a painter of portraits, narrative pictures and occasionally landscapes. He also made sculpture and was responsible for the mosaic decoration in St. Paul's Cathedral. He was born 1842, the son of the artist George Richmond RA, who named him after his early friend the poet painter and mystic, William Blake.

Richmond attended the Royal Academy Schools, where he was awarded two silver medals. He was influenced by the newly successful Pre-Raphaelite painters Holman Hunt and Millais, but even more by their enthusiastic advocate, the writer and critic John Ruskin. Richmond began his career painting pictures inspired by poetry, classical legend or stories from the Bible. He continued with such subjects until the end of the 19th century. During the 1860s and 70s he became a most successful portrait painter. Amongst others, he painted Charles Darwin, William Morris, the poet Robert Browning and the Prime Minister WE Gladstone twice. Richmond was the Slade Professor of Fine Art between 1878 and 1883. He became a member of the Royal Academy in 1895 and was knighted in 1897. In 1899 he was President of the Society of Miniature Painters. His grandfather Thomas Richmond was a well-known miniature painter.

Richmond's reputation as an artist rests on his portraits and on the large paintings such as 'Venus and Anchises'. At his funeral in February 1921 there were wreathes from Princess Louise, Duchess of Argyll, The Royal Academy and the Coal Smoke Abatement Society, of which Richmond was the founder. His coffin was described in The Times as, 'perfectly plain...and the handles which were of wrought iron, were of William Morris design'.