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Art in Focus: 'Venus' painting at Ringling Museum of Art about love

Noel-Nicolas Coypel, Louise ?lisabeth, Princesse de Conti, as Venus, 1731, oil on canvas.

Ringling Museum of Art

Noel-Nicolas Coypel, Louise ?lisabeth, Princesse de Conti, as Venus, 1731, oil on canvas.

The tradition of portrait painting is several thousand years old. For most of that time, subjects were the rich and powerful. This painting, in the permanent collection of the John and Mable Ringling Museum in Sarasota, is an example. Not much was known about it until recently, when Virginia Brilliant, the Ringling's curator of European Art, researched it while preparing a new catalog of the collection to be published in 2017.

Lennie Bennett, Times art critic

The artist

Noel-Nicolas Coypel (1690-1734) was part of a prominent family of painters spanning several generations. His father, Noel, was a court painter commissioned by Louis XIV for interior projects at Versailles. His son Antoine worked on the chapel ceiling there. Antoine's son, Charles-Antoine, was much sought after as a court portrait painter and became the director of the Académie Royale and chief painter to Louis XV in 1747. Noel-Nicholas was Noel's son and Antoine's half-brother.

According to Brilliant, he was the most talented but least famous because he was shy and not self-promotional as were other family members. He was a good painter but not in the same league as Watteau, Boucher and Fragonard.

The painting

Coypel (pronounced cwa-pel) worked during the early years of the Rococo movement in the 18th century, which followed the more formal, heavier Baroque favored by Louis XIV, the Sun King. During the reigns of Louis XV and Louis XVI, art became lighter in style and color. It was manifested in architecture, interior design, fashion and art. In Venus, it's manifested in the lush silk of the gown, the cherubic boys wrapping her in flowers and the gauzy, idyllic background. As Brilliant says, "It's very prettily done."

The subject

Even though Louise Élisabeth is dressed in the style of her times, she is portrayed as the goddess Venus. Using myth and allegory was common in the early 18th century. Brilliant says the wings on the boys are a clue to the meaning of the painting. On one, the wings are those of a butterfly; on the other they are those of a dove. "In Greek mythology, Eros and Anteros were the sons of Mars and Venus and together form a pair of opposites," she writes about the work. "The former represents heavenly or sacred love (the dove) and the latter earthly love (the butterfly). The struggle between them was seen as an allegory of the choice between eternal sacred love and the ephemeral nature of earthly carnal desire."

She notes that struggle was a popular subject beginning in the Renaissance. She says that maybe the garland isn't just a decorative element. "We are perhaps meant to see them as fighting over which love will prevail in the lady's heart."

The princess

Louise Élisabeth (1693-1775) was a high-born aristocrat, daughter of Louis III de Bourbon, Prince of Condé, and Louise Francoise de Bourbon, a legitimized daughter of Louis XIV and one of his mistresses. Her arranged marriage in 1713 to her first cousin, Louis Armand de Bourbon, Prince of Conti, took place in Versailles' royal chapel which, Brilliant reminds us, was decorated by Antoine Coypel.

The marriage was an unhappy one. Brilliant, in her research, uncovered a mention of the princess by memoirist Elizabeth Charlotte, duchesse d'Orleans:

"She is a person full of charms, and a striking proof that grace is preferable to beauty. … She has an ugly fool for her husband, who has been badly brought up; and the examples which are constantly before her eyes are so pernicious that they have corrupted her and made her careless of her reputation."

Her husband died in 1727, leaving her great wealth. She never remarried and lived mostly at Versailles, participating in its court intrigues.

Provenance

John Ringling bought the painting in 1927, believing it to be by Carle van Loo, another 18th century painting from a prominent family of artists. It was cleaned in 1940, four years after Ringling died, uncovering a Coypel signature and date. For years, the painting was attributed to Charles-Antoine, Noel-Nicholas' nephew. An expert who examined the painting in the 1960s pointed out the error and since then, the current attribution has been accepted by scholars.

Art in Focus is an occasional series that takes a closer look at a work in the permanent collection of one of our regional museums.

Art in Focus: 'Venus' painting at Ringling Museum of Art about love 03/09/16 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 9, 2016 10:40am]
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