Naked Venus, the goddess of love, throws her arms around handsome young Adonis to stop him from going out to hunt. The story is told in Book 10 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. One morning when Venus departs in her sky-borne chariot, Adonis’s hounds rouse a wild boar, which turns on him. Venus hears Adonis’s groans, leaps from her chariot and finds him dying. From her lover’s blood she creates a fragile flower whose petals are scattered in the wind, named anemone (‘wind flower’ in Greek).
This picture is one of many versions of the subject painted by Titian and his studio. The most famous was delivered in 1553 to Prince Philip, later King Philip II of Spain and is now in the Prado, Madrid. The National Gallery’s canvas was probably painted by artists in Titian’s workshop over a brush drawing by Titian himself. It may have been used as a studio model from which further copies were made.
After a night of lovemaking, naked Venus, the goddess of love, throws her arms around handsome young Adonis to stop him from going out to hunt. Cupid sleeps on a grassy bank, his bow and quiver of arrows are hanging unused from a tree. Without Cupid’s dart Venus is unable to detain her lover and other thoughts are now on his mind. He holds his feathered spear in one hand, and has wound the leads of his three hounds around his upper arm. His large hound seems to catch the scent of a boar, indicating the future tragedy to come. The dramatic movement in the picture contrasts with the stillness and intensity of the couple’s gaze, which recalls that between Bacchus and Ariadne in Titian’s earlier painting for Alfonso I d‘Este, Duke of Ferrara.
The best known version of the story of Venus and Adonis appears in Book 10 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Venus falls in love with the youth Adonis when Cupid accidentally wounds her with one of his arrows. She goes hunting with Adonis but tells him not to pursue the fiercer prey (wolves, bears, lions and boars). One morning when Venus departs in her sky-borne chariot, Adonis goes hunting and his hounds rouse a wild boar. He spears but only wounds the boar, which turns on him and sinks its teeth into his groin. Venus hears Adonis’s groans, leaps from her chariot and finds him dying. She mourns her lover’s death and from his blood creates a beautiful but fragile flower whose petals are quickly scattered in the wind, which she calls anemone (’wind flower' in Greek).
In this painting, Titian has contained past, present and future in one image. Adonis’s large hound seems to catch the scent of the boar, indicating the future, just as Venus appears to sense Adonis’s impending death. The tragic ending of the story is suggested by the second figure of Venus in her chariot among the clouds. It was one of Titian’s most sophisticated narrative ideas and one so popular that he would frequently replicate it. However Titian’s scene departs significantly from Ovid’s story. In the Metamorphoses, Venus never tries to detain Adonis from leaving to hunt, she simply warns him against hunting the fiercer prey, and it is she who leaves him.
Titian’s Venus is modelled on a figure in an ancient Roman relief sculpture, known as the Bed of Polyclitus. No other large figure in a major work by Titian comes this close to being a quotation from a classical sculpture. Titian’s choice of classical subjects and sources is typical of the Italian Renaissance rebirth of interest in classical antiquity. It also reflects the debate at the time about the relative merits of painting and sculpture, known in Italian as the paragone. He seems to have been interested in painting figures from behind at that date.
This picture is one of many versions of the subject painted by Titian and his studio. The most famous was delivered in 1553 Prince Philip, later King Philip II of Spain, as a complement to Titian’s Danaë (both Prado, Madrid). The composition, however, dates back at least to the 1540s and quite possibly even the early 1520s. The National Gallery’s canvas seems to have been painted just after the Prado version by artists in Titian’s workshop working from a prototype, possibly the subsequently altered version now at Hatchlands Park in Surrey.
Titian’s Venus and Adonis was greatly admired and proved very influential. He made the subject one of the most popular in European painting, and also favoured for small bronze sculptural groups. Shakespeare’s long poem Venus and Adonis published in 1593 may even reflect some knowledge of Titian’s work.
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