The composition corresponds closely to the left side of Titian’s Venus Blindfolding Cupid in the Galleria Borghese, Rome [fig. 1], universally regarded as an autograph masterpiece and usually dated to circa 1565. Apart from the obvious differences of costume, with the figure of Venus in the present work wearing a costume and jewelry more closely related to contemporary fashion, the main iconographical difference is that the blindfolded Cupid here holds one of his arrows across his mother’s lap. But there are good reasons to suppose that the format of the Gallery’s picture, which is cut at the right, likewise originally consisted of a broad rectangle and included two more figures in the lost section, in addition to the fragmentary third figure, whose disembodied arm holding up a silver dish survived the mutilation of the painting. Mid-18th-century inventories describe the picture as representing “the Elements (or the Graces) offering Tribute” to Venus, implying that a total of three figures are now missing, and the x-radiograph of the Borghese picture has revealed that it, too, was originally intended to have a third figure, between the Venus group on the left and the nymphs on the right. The pose of this figure, subsequently canceled by the artist in the Borghese version, corresponds closely to that of the fragmentary figure in the Gallery’s picture.
When at Stowe the painting was considered to be an autograph Titian, and soon after its arrival in America, this traditional attribution was upheld by Wilhelm Suida, who argued furthermore that the work preceded the Borghese version by a decade. Rodolfo Pallucchini likewise regarded the present picture as autograph and datable to the mid-1550s. The x-radiograph of the Borghese version, which reveals the cancellation of a figure still present in the Gallery’s version, might appear to support this opinion. But as first indicated by Paola Della Pergola in 1955, with the subsequent concurrence of a majority of critics (including Francesco Valcanover, Fern Rusk Shapley, and Harold Wethey), the style and technique of the Gallery’s picture indicate rather that it postdates the qualitatively superior Borghese version and was executed by a shop assistant or follower. The anonymous compiler of the 1961 catalog of paintings in the Art Institute of Chicago suggested that the picture was by the same hand as the Chicago Allegory (no. 1943.90; now Allegory of Venus and Cupid), which was at that time attributed to Titian’s pupil Damiano Mazza. Although sharing some compositional motifs, however, the two pictures are not particularly close stylistically; and in any case, too little is known of Mazza’s independent style for either of the two to be attributed to him with any conviction. Definitely unconvincing is the attribution of the Gallery’s picture by Federico Zeri to Lambert Sustris, whose personal style, despite the mystery that still surrounds his later career, remains relatively recognizable, with its fluid handling of paint and pale color schemes. To some extent, as implied by Wethey, the bright, variegated colors and the luxurious accessories are closer to Veronese than the late Titian, whose preference for a duskier, more monochrome palette is more faithfully represented by the Gallery’s version of Venus and Adonis. The evidence of the x-radiographs of the Borghese picture indicate, nonetheless, that the executant of the present work must have been a member of Titian’s studio, since he clearly had direct access to the master’s designs. Yet the x-radiographs of the present picture [fig. 2] reveal that the executant made a number of less radical changes of his own, changing, for example, the position of Venus’s left forearm, as well as a number of details of her costume, and incorporating a jeweled chain very similar to that in the Salome of circa 1560–1570 (Koelliker collection, Milan). It remains difficult to decide whether the work was painted simultaneously with the Borghese version; immediately after it, but still directly under Titian’s supervision; or after his death and in imitation of his unfinished late works, circa 1576–1580.
As pointed out by Robert Wald, a close reflection of the original composition of the Gallery’s picture is probably provided by a low-quality, perhaps 18th-century painting in the stores of the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna [fig. 3]. Although Venus is dressed differently in the latter, the owner of the arm upraising the dish is present; and apart from the change of the sex of the figure on the far right, the figures in the Vienna picture correspond well to the “Graces offering Tribute to Venus” recorded in Stowe inventories of the 18th century. Thus, all three figures in the Vienna picture seem to bear attributes of the goddess of love: the foremost female holds apples in the folds of her skirt, the figure at the right holds up a dove in a basket, and the silver dish held up by the figure at the center perhaps contains flowers. On this evidence it may be that the Vienna picture represents a more or less literal copy of a lost autograph painting by Titian, which preceded the Borghese picture, and which provided the basis for the Gallery’s variant. All three of the figures included in the now-missing section of the Gallery’s picture then reappear, together or individually, in numerous variants painted by Titian and his workshop during the 1550s and 1560s.
The partly contemporary and courtly character of the costume, together with the more worldly, less classicizing character of her features compared with those of the Borghese picture, led Suida to suppose that the figure was intended as a portrait. In keeping with this supposition, the picture is still entitled Portrait of a Young Lady as Venus Binding the Eyes of Cupid in Shapley’s catalog of 1979. But the features are still highly idealized and the costume is fanciful, and there is every reason to suppose that like the Borghese version, the Gallery’s picture is intended as a mythological allegory. Despite the plausible assumption that it once represented the Three Graces bringing gifts to Venus, the precise significance of the allegory—like that of the Borghese picture, in which the Graces are replaced by two nymphs with the attributes of huntresses—remains unclear. The two most detailed interpretations of the Borghese picture, both in a moralizing, neoplatonic vein but with differing results, have been provided by Erwin Panofsky and Edgar Wind. Panofsky pointed out that the two cupids represent Eros and Anteros, both sons of Venus, but symbols of contrasting aspects of love, the blind and sensuous, and the clear-sighted and virtuous. According to Panofsky, the work should be seen as a marriage picture, in which Venus is shown choosing between the two, opting for virtuous and reciprocal love, and about to remove Eros’s blindfold. Wind emphasized rather the need of the goddess of love to combine perspicacity and passion, and by deliberately sending Eros out into the world blindfolded, the virtuous love advocated by his brother can attain a higher joy. The interpretation of the picture as a Domestication of Cupid by Walter Friedländer is closer to that of Panofsky than of Wind, but the author identified the main figure not as Venus but as Vesta, goddess of the hearth and domestic chastity, who is concerned to protect the world from the harm caused by Eros. Rona Goffen, who unaccountably identified the blindfolded cupid as Anteros and his standing brother as Eros, suggested that the meaning is deliberately ambiguous, evoking the teasing uncertainties of love. More recent scholars have tended to side with Panofsky in interpreting Venus in this context as a tutelary deity of marital love and conjugal chastity; and in this case, the Gallery’s picture may be assumed similarly to have been painted (or at least, acquired) to celebrate a marriage. As noted by Miguel Falomir, however, the arrow here gives the message an ironic twist and reminds its viewers that the blind passion of Eros represents an ongoing threat to marital bliss.
March 21, 2019