The mythology of the Classical world and the art that it inspired both had a great appeal for Thomas Rowlandson. He was introduced to the study of ancient sculpture while a student of the Royal Academy Schools, and sustained an interest in classical imagery throughout his career, as a result of his enquiring mind and in acknowledgement of the wider antiquarian interests of the time. In turn, he employed Classical imagery as a weapon in his satirical armoury, as the basis of erotic, even pornographic imagery, and in straightforward emulation of its beauty.
The present drawing is an example of that emulation of Classical beauty. Like many of Rowlandson’s Classical images, it is based on a print of an old master painting, in this instance Jean-Baptiste Michel’s etching and engraving of Venus and Cupid by Carlo Maratta (1625-1713). Michel’s engraving was published as one of a set of 129 prints entitled The Houghton Gallery, which was published by John Boydell between 1774 and 1788, and then gathered in two volumes. (Venus and Cupid was Plate 8 of Volume II.) This project was intended as a record of the Walpole collection at Houghton Hall, Norfolk, before it was dispersed – much of it being sold to Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia in 1779. However, the current whereabouts of Maratta’s original painting is not known.
In this image, Venus, the Roman goddess of love, reclines on a rock, while her son, Cupid, removes a rose thorn from her foot. Classical poets recounted at least two variants of the origin of the affiliation of Venus to the rose: that it was created when Venus’s tears mixed with the blood of her wounded lover, Adonis; and also that, in making a failed attempt to save Adonis, she was wounded by rose thorns, so that her blood turned the white flowers red. Renaissance artists tended to show Venus removing a thorn from her own foot, perhaps inspired by Lo Spinario, the famous Hellenistic bronze of a boy doing the same (now in the Palazzo dei Conservatori, Rome). It was only in the eighteenth century that artists regularly showed Cupid taking action, as an extension of the long history of images of Venus together with Cupid.
Other drawings by Rowlandson, in which he explored aspects of the Classical Venus, include The Bath of Venus (Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, CA), Venus, Anchises and Cupid (The Metropolitan Museum, New York) and Venus Crowned by Cupids (Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT). In 1799, he produced a series of four etchings on the subject: Mars and Sleeping Venus with Putti, Sleeping Venus, Sleeping Venus cuddling a Child and Venus and Cupid. In the same year, he made an etched copy of Titian’s Venus of Urbino (the original of which is in Le Gallerie dei Uffizi, Florence).
With thanks to Nicholas Knowles for his help in the compilation of this note.