The most important Renaissance bronze statue to enter the collections since the founding of the National Gallery of Art, Venus and Cupid provided a happy culmination to former director J. Carter Brown's long search for a work of sculpture to grace the central fountain on the ground floor near the Constitution Avenue entrance. This sixteenth-century statue designed as a fountain figure, closely related to a celebrated Florentine masterpiece, has since received an even better place, above a newly designed fountain in the ground floor sculpture galleries that opened in 2002.
The lithe Venus, wringing water from her long hair, is a close variant of Giambologna's Florence (Venus) from the Villa Medici at Castello, now on view at La Petraia, another villa near Florence. The Medici bronze was probably modeled in the 1560s and cast c. 1570 - 1572. The similarities in size (Florence is 125 centimeters high) and pose are strong enough to suggest that the sculptor of the Venus and Cupid had access to Giambologna's model. However, differences in the movements and proportions indicate that the Washington Venus is not simply a second cast of Giambologna's model, but an adaptation by a different artistic personality who preferred slimmer proportions, more restrained movements, and a more coolly classical facial type. Whereas Giambologna provided an urn under Venus' left foot to generate her twisting, sinuous pose, the Washington sculptor enlivened the composition with a dolphin that spouts water and supports Venus' small son Cupid. Pressing close to his mother's body and reaching out with a conch shell to catch the droplets falling from her hair, the plump little boy with his waving curls and impetuous action makes an appealing contrast to her cool elegance. The child is closely related in physical type to Giambologna's Fishing Boys of 1561 /1563 (Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence).
The style and the pronounced links with works in Florence suggest that this is the creation of an artist who had access to Giambologna's workshop, and thus was a close collaborator. Since a model for the Medici Florence appears in the background of a portrait of Giambologna in his studio (attributed to Hans von Aachen, c. 1585, private collection), the sculpture evidently meant a good deal to him, and he may have kept its clay or plaster form on hand. The Washington variant is a rare and witty example of the immediate influence of the greatest Renaissance sculptor after Michelangelo. Its prominent place in the ground floor sculpture installation creates a counterpart to the fountain in the main floor Rotunda, whose central bronze figure of Mercury is also an invention of Giambologna.
(Text by Alison Luchs, published in the National Gallery of Art exhibition catalogue, Art for the Nation, 2000)
Baroness Sophia Elizabeth Wykeham [d. 1870], Thame Park, Oxfordshire. private collection, England; (sale, Christie, Manson & Woods, London, 10 December 1991, no. 100, not sold); purchased 31 December 1991 through (Christie, Manson & Woods, London) by NGA.
- Art for the Nation: Collecting for a New Century, National Gallery of Art, Washington, 2000-2001, unnumbered catalogue, repro.
- Keutner, Herbert. "The Venus Anadyomene attributed to Carlo di Cesare del Palagio (1540-1598)." Christie's International Magazine 8 (1991): 8-11, repro.
- Brozan, Nadine. "Chronicle." The New York Times (Thursday, 7 May 1992).
- Keutner, Herbert. "Carlo de Cesare del Palagio (1540-1598): Eine Bronzevenus aus dem Garten der Berg Trausnitz?" Münchner Jahrbuch der bildenden Kunst (1992): 93+, repro.
- Lewis, Jo Ann. "National Gallery's Lady of Love." The Washington Post (6 May 1992).
- Art for the Nation: Collecting for a New Century. Exh. cat. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 2000: 246-247, repro. (not in the exhibition).
- National Gallery of Art Special Issue. Connaissance des Arts. Paris, 2000:59.
- Diemer, Dorothea. Hubert Gerhard und Carlo di Cesare del Palagio. Bronzeplastiker der Spätrenaissance. 2 vols., Berlin, 2004: 1, 414-416, repro.