DAVID, Jacques-Louis
(b. 1748, Paris, d. 1825, Bruxelles)

Mars Disarmed by Venus and the Three Graces

Oil on canvas, 308 x 262 cm
Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels

With the illness of 1820, David began to sense the end of his life and was determined to paint one last grand statement. In 1821 he began work on Mars Disarmed by Venus and the Three Graces. Completed in 1824, the work is bold, surprising and puzzling, and many people then and now have wondered exactly what he meant by this strange scene played out against an ornate marble pavilion in the sky.

Mars, the god of war, is succumbing to the charms of Venus, but the outcome is still in doubt. Venus hesitates to place the crown of roses on his head - an emblem of submission to the pleasures of the flesh - and Cupid, who unties Mars' sandal, has put down his bow with the golden arrow of desire and the leaden arrow of repulsion side-by-side and not yet fired. Mars is shown nude and David delicately placed one of a pair of rather scruffy cooing doves to conceal his genitals for the sake of propriety. The pale Venus is an extremely delicate and sinuous form and much thinner than this voluptuous goddess is usually depicted. Behind the divine couple on the antique couch are the Three Graces who perform aimless tasks. One offers a cup of wine to Mars who has no free hand to take it, another rolls his shield as if it were a child's hoop and we can only wonder where the Grace on the left thinks she is putting Mars' helmet. Traditionally, the Graces were the beautifuI handmaidens of Venus, but these are patently 'graceless Graces' and their gestures and expressions border on the absurd and comical.

The overall effect is certainly perplexing and unnerving and it is also painted in a highly coloured hard-edged style that perhaps suggests considerable contributions from his Belgian assistants.