Artwork of the Day – Sir Joshua Reynolds

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Liverpool artwork of the day – Thursday July 12 2007. ‘Venus Chiding Cupid for Learning to Cast Accounts’, by Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792) at Lady Lever Art Gallery

It would appear from this picture that childhood obesity is not such a new thing after all.

In this painting, Venus is shown with her son Cupid (also known as Eros) who embodied sensual, earthly love and a second child, presumably his brother and counterpart Anteros, who symbolised spiritual, virtuous love. Venus has taken Cupid’s weapon, the dart, which he shoots at unsuspecting mortals to make them fall in love. This is punishment for the crime he has committed. He has neglected his duties as a spreader of love and has spent his time learning to do sums, seen on the sheet of accounts he holds.

Without his dart, Cupid is a sad, emasculated little figure; but the tone of the painting as a whole is light-hearted and witty. It is a new take on one of the most familiar mythological subjects in western art. There had been many images of Venus scolding Cupid and clipping his wings, or Eros having a tussle with his brother Anteros.

The idea that Cupid’s crime is an interest in money, however, is Reynolds’s own. Reynolds may have been having a sly dig at the loveless lives of people who married for money, a common practice in the circles of high-spending young men who were the picture’s anticipated audience. And it is possible he may even have been having a little fun at his own expense. The figures on Cupid’s account sheet appear to be the prices Reynolds charged for various sizes of painting and frame. Could he be commenting upon his own status as a confirmed old bachelor whom love has passed by, as a result of his too-eager pursuit of professional success and with it, financial security?

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