Venus the great goddess of mythology was one of the twelve great Olympian divinities and was the subject of various legends. Over time she has principally become known as the goddess of love and beauty. The depiction of her in various mythical tales became core subjects for large numbers of painters over many hundreds of years so that by the time of the portrait presented here the obvious symbols alluding to her would have been understood immediately.
So whilst we instantly see her as a stylish lady of fashion, apparent in the silk gown and shawl that, almost sensuously, swath her upper body – and the decorative flowers and pearls that adorn her hair and neck – thorough the arrow she holds we can also understand her portrait as alluding to love and passion. The arrow references the story of love between Venus and Adonis – a deep and profound love that was instigated by Cupid’s arrow grazing Venus, which resulted in her falling helplessly in love with Adonis when she first saw him.
The portrait also plays up on observations of Venus made by ancient writers who celebrated her different features and speak of her “loveable” smile and her “tender and voluptuous appearance”. These attributes were of obvious interest to artists and particularly in France during the 18th century. The style and manner of the portrait echoes the work most notably of Francois Boucher, an artists name now synonymous with rich seductive images many of which feature Venus. The use of red chalk particularly in the outline of the hands is strongly reminiscent of his drawings which were produced in large numbers and available to an even wider audience through engravings. Edme Gersaint, the dealer and friend of Watteau, noted that collectors were particularly attracted to ‘carefully finished and coloured drawings’ and Boucher’s use of pastel at this time was aimed at this market which also desired attractive framing of the images.
In light of this it is understandable the influence this would have on other artists wanting to make a living and therefore produce portraits similar to Boucher. Nicolas-Rene Jollain (1732-1804) and Hughes Taraval (1729-1785) were two such painters who when the commission necessitated were happy to turn their backs on the neo-classical and embrace again Boucher’s earlier manner. No one in 18th century France could quite so richly depict passionate emotions of love and desire in the way Boucher achieved something which clearly motivated the artist of this portrait to create the striking image before us.