The term “getting your leg over” is the modern vernacular for having sex. Yet this particular idea was the dominant visual metaphor in Renaissance painting where sexual activity was often indicated by one of the two partners getting their leg over. Graphic and explicit depictions of sexual intercourse were rare in the great art of the Renaissance so getting your leg over was as close as most painters would want to come to the depiction of sexual intercourse.
Nonetheless, there was a ready market for soft-porn erotica even during the Renaissance and many artists benefited from the desire of rich patrons to have their own porn collection.
To avoid prosecution by church authorities, Renaissance painters wishing to provide their patrons with something a bit more exciting than a picture of a saint or a nativity had to tread carefully. It was acceptable to depict religious stories and consequently the biblical story of Susannah and Elders was immensely popular because it involved a beautiful young woman naked in her garden.
Similarly, any depiction of pants-down goddess Venus whose lovers included the Gods Vulcan (her husband), Mars, Hermes, Zeus and mortals Anchises, Adonis and the Sicilian king Butes provided the artist was plenty of license.
Dutch painter Pieter Isaacsz (1569 – 1625) was court painter to the Danish king Christian IV who also became a spy in Swedish service and died of the plague in Elsinore. This painting Mars, Venus And Amor is of the most popular leg-over merchants in Renaissance art, Mars and Venus.
Another Venus and Mars, here being surprised by Vulcan, this time by Alessandro Varotari, known as Padovanino, who was an Italian painter of the late-Mannerist and early-Baroque Venetian school.
Another Venus and Mars legover is by Richard Conway (1742 – 1821) who was a leading English portrait painter of the Regency era and who painted the future King George IV in 1780. He was appointed Painter to the Prince of Wales in 1785 — the only time this title was ever awarded. This painting of Venus and Mars was one of the few times he strayed from pictures of floppy-eared puppy-dogs.
Paolo Caliari, known as Paolo Veronese (1528–1588), was an Italian Renaissance painter. The critic Théophile Gautier wrote of Paolo Veronese that he was the greatest colorist who ever lived—greater than Titian, Rubens, or Rembrandt because he established the harmony of natural tones in place of the modelling in dark and light that remained the method of academic chiaroscuro. He also did a good leg over.
Carlo Saraceni (1579 – 1620) was an Italian early-Baroque painter, whose reputation was as a “first-class painter of the second rank”. Like Veronese, he had a couple of shots at Venus and Mars leg-overs..
By far the most prolific portrayer of the leg over is Bartholomeus Spranger (1546 – 1611) a Flemish painter. His patron was Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II and Spranger’s paintings for Rudolf mostly depict mythological nudes in various complex and inventive poses.
Bartholomeus Spränger Mars and Venus
Spranger Venus and Adonis
Angelica and Medoro were popular subjects for Romantic painters, composers and writers from the 16th until the 19th century. They are two characters from the 16th-century Italian epic Orlando Furioso by Ludovico Ariosto. Angelica was an Asian princess at the court of Charlemagne who fell in love with the Saracen knight Medoro, and eloped with him to China.
Bartholomeus Spranger: Angelica and Medoro
In her best-known myth, Omphale is the mistress of the hero Heracles during a year of required servitude, a scenario that offered writers and artists opportunities to explore sexual roles and erotic themes.
Bartholomeus Spranger, Hercule et Omphale
Frans Floris, Frans Floris the Elder or Frans Floris de Vriendt (1517 – 1 October 1570) was a Flemish painter mainly known for his history paintings and portraits.
François Boucher ( 1703 – 1770) was famed for the eroticism as his mythological scenes. His patroness, Madame de Pompadour was the official chief mistress of Louis XV from 1745 to 1751. This is a painting of Venus and Mars, in this case being surprised in flagrant delicto by Venus’s husband Vulcan and painted in the luscious Rococo style.
As was his Heracles and Omphale.
Louis-Jean-François Lagrenée (1724 – 1805) was a French rococo painter appointed to the position of honorary curator-director (administration) of the Louvre museum, a position which he held until his death in 1805. He did a couple of Venus and Mars leg-over gigs.
I am indebted to Wikipedia for the biographical detail on the artists in this blog.