Paolo Veronese, Happy Union
Four Allegories of Love
These four paintings by Veronese concern the trials and rewards of love, although their precise meanings remain unclear and have been much debated. The titles are not original and were given to the paintings in 1727. The scenes are not necessarily meant to go in any particular order.
The compositions are designed to be seen from below, so we know the paintings were intended for a ceiling or a series of ceilings. The lower parts of the compositions seem to have been cut, and in several cases the feet of the figures are not visible. These features are disconcerting when the pictures are hung on a wall. The composition of each painting forms a strong diagonal, which would help relate the paintings to each other on a ceiling. We do not know who commissioned them, but it may have been a wealthy patron in Venice or one of the Holy Roman Emperors.
These four paintings by Veronese are allegories of love. They are titled Unfaithfulness, Scorn, Respect and Happy Union, although their precise meanings remain unclear and have been much debated. The titles were given to the paintings in 1727, and continue to be used in the absence of better suggestions.
They were intended for a ceiling or a series of ceilings. We can tell this because the architectural elements within them are tilted. The lower parts of the compositions are not included in the paintings, and in several cases the feet of the figures are not visible. These features would have worked when the paintings were displayed on a ceiling but are disconcerting when they are hung on a wall. The composition of each painting forms a strong diagonal, which on a ceiling would help relate the paintings to one another.
We do not know who commissioned them, but it is most likely that the patron was Italian and they were made for a Venetian location. They seem to have still been in Italy in the 1620s, when Van Dyck recorded two of the compositions (Unfaithfulness and Respect) in his Italian sketchbook (British Museum, London). In 1648 they were in Prague Castle, although it seems most likely that the patron was Venetian.
The paintings may have been made to decorate a husband and wife’s apartments as the subjects are connected with the trials and rewards of love. The scenes are not necessarily meant to go in any particular order and there is no obvious narrative development. The man in Happy Union does not appear in any of the other scenes.
It seems likely that the paintings were intended for the ceilings of a suite of four rooms rather than for a single ceiling. In each painting the light falls from the same direction, which supports this idea. Also, in Venice no private residence had a ceiling large enough for all four paintings and no ceiling with four square compartments is recorded. Since many European palaces had parallel suites of rooms for husband and wife, it is possible that two of the paintings were made for a reception room and bedchamber of a man and two for the equivalent rooms of his spouse. The series does seem to divide well into two pairs: Unfaithfulness with Happy Union; and Scorn with Respect.
It is likely that the rapidly brushed-in highlights on the figures were made in response to a final judgment of how the pictures looked when viewed from a distance and from below. That final judgment must have been Veronese’s own. The costumes and hairstyles relate to those in Veronese’s other paintings of the mid-1570s.