Eternal triangles: Mars and Venus surprised by Vulcan

This gorgeous painting by French painter Guillemot Alexandre Charles (1786-1831) depicts the moment when Vulcan is about to cast the net he has forged over the two lovers,  Mars and Venus, trapping them in flagrante delicto for all to see.


The beautifully shaped alabaster form of Venus dominates the centre of the painting. The goddess of love is portrayed as a ravishing (and frequently ravished) beauty.

Mars was the archetypical bad boy. hot tempered, always ready for a fight and desperately attractive.

Poor old Vulcan, by contrast, was rather more mundane. toiling away in his forge each day. Think Joe Gargery from Great Expectations.

The central figure, the blushing Venus, with her hand to a head in feigned concern radiates “well what did you expect?”


She is a ditzy Princess Di figure, a narcissist only partially connecting to the drama surrounding her.

The figure of Mars is similarly disconnected from the drama.


He stares at the viewer with sullen aggression saying, “So what are you looking at?”

Only Vulcan appears to be emotionally connected to what is happening.


He stares of Venus in puzzlement as if trying to understand what has happened. Surely this was not the first time. Her list of lovers included Dionysius,  Mercury, Zeus, Nerites,  Poseidon, and the mortal, Adonis. Perhaps that is what is puzzling Vulcan.

There are two strong compositional structures in this painting linking the three central figures.xomposition

The first runs from Mars’ shoulder down the figure of Venus where it connects with a transverse that runs along her right leg her foot, her foot and into the left arm of Vulcan. This structure serves to reinforce emotional content of the painting.

A secondary structure is in the background where the gods view the plight of the lovers from Mount Olympus.

The Gods look on
The Gods look on

Once he had ensnared the lovers with his net, Vulcan

…… call’d the Gods to view the sportive pair:
The Gods throng’d in, and saw in open day,
Where Mars, and beauty’s queen, all naked, lay.
O! shameful sight, if shameful that we name,
Which Gods with envy view’d, and could not blame;
But, for the pleasure, wish’d to bear the shame.
Each Deity, with laughter tir’d, departs,
Yet all still laugh’d at Vulcan in their hearts.

Ovid Metamorphoses Book IV

The title of the painting reminds me of the famous anecdote.

The famous Dr. Johnson was discovered one day by Mrs. Johnson in bed with one of her serving maids.

“Why, Dr. Johnson,” said his wife, “I am surprised.”

“No,” said the lexicographer, “my dear. I am surprised; you are astonished!”

Elizabeth “Tetty” Porter, Johnson’s wife: astonished not surprised

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