GOLTZIUS, Hendrick
(b. 1558, Mühlbrecht, d. 1617, Haarlem)

Venus between Ceres and Bacchus

Ink, chalk, bodycolour on paper, 402 x 287 mm
Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels

After training as a glass painter in his father's studio, Goltzius learned engraving from printer Dirck Volckertsz. Coornhert. From 1582 he began publishing prints and eighteen or so years later started painting. Following a journey to Italy (1590/91) he moderated his mannerist distortions and turned to portraying grand, idealised scenes, as in this masterly drawing.

What strikes us is the emphasis on the physical and psychological interaction between Venus and Bacchus, depicted close to one another, whilst Ceres holds herself apart. This offered Goltzius an opportunity of portraying the female body from both front and back - in those days a very popular pose and representing the "nec plus ultra" of grace. The fact that Venus, Ceres and Bacchus look so lifelike is because Goltzius began at this time to use live models. The representation of Bacchus, the god of wine, in the company of Venus, the goddess of love and Ceres, the goddess of the harvest, is a reference to the old Greek saying: "Without Ceres and Bacchus, Venus freezes". This proverb, taken from The Eunuch, a comedy by Roman author Terence that was frequently staged in Goltzius' time, had become a popular maxim. As frequently happened in the 16th century, this classical theme took on a profane interpretation, which can be paraphrased as "Eating and drinking is part of the game of love".

This composition is an extraordinary combination of different drawing techniques. The god's and goddess's naked bodies are contoured with strong brown ink brush strokes and sharp black chalk lines. These are then coloured in with ink and body-colour in grey, white, brown and pink tints, next to zones of stumped black and red chalk. The result is an attractive "pictorial tapestry", full of light and colour nuances. The sketchy nature of certain items like the baldachino and the putti to the upper left relates to the purpose of the drawing. This is a composition sketch anticipating Goltzius' only known grisaille, dated 1599 and now conserved in London, done in grey and white oils on paper on top of a black chalk underdrawing. As with many of Goltzius' compositions, a print of this work was also published by the famous engraver Jan Saenredam.