c1638 by Diego Velázquez
Museo Nacional del Prado
Although this painting usually lives in Madrid, it came to rest next to Venus during National Gallery’s Velázquez exhibition. Seeing Mars next to ‘The Rokeby Venus’ is intriguing, bearing in mind in myth they were lovers. Indeed, Velázquez has married the two portraits; the vivid pink and blue is used in both, picked out in the luscious swathes and folds of material that cloak and surround the characters. These colours are most curious in Mars, whose portrayal, considering his usual interpretations, is surprisingly feminine. Not only are the colours soft but his pose open, as if waiting – perhaps for his lover – with his weapons cast idly to the floor; his body is also slight, not hugely flexing, as we might expect from Mars the god of war. The portrait is intimate in its honest and open presentation, which is interesting, as Venus lies with her back to us.