Titian was often inspired by tales from Ovid’s Metamorphoses for the paintings he called poesie, poetry in paint. The goddess Venus has fallen in love with Adonis, a handsome hunter. She foresees that the hunt will be fatal for him, and tries in vain to restrain him from leaving with his hunting dogs. The mood of sensuality created by the beautiful view of Venus seen from the back (inspired by a Roman relief sculpture) barely distracts the viewer from the tragic end of the tale. Titian and his studio returned to the composition, varying it, in numerous paintings from the mid-1540s until the end of his life. This version was painted at the end of his career and its high quality shows that it was carried out by the artist himself.
This work is freely based on an episode recounted in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the popular ancient poem published in Italian in Venice towards the end of the fifteenth century. In Ovid’s account, Venus, accidentally wounded by one of her son Cupid’s arrows, falls in love with the handsome hunter Adonis and, forgetting her divine duties, descends to earth to spend time with him. To please her young lover the goddess takes up hunting and pursues harmless prey, warning Adonis about the perils that can befall the hunter. When the goddess returns to her realm Adonis, careless of her warning, is slain by a wild boar (Metamorphoses, X, 519 ff.).
Titian’s canvas depicts the story in an unprecedented way, with Venus portrayed while trying to hold Adonis back from his dreadful fate. She pleads in vain, for although the hunter glances back at her, his body turns in the opposite direction, responding to the pull of the dogs. Adonis ignores the threatening signs of his fate: the fear shown by the small Cupid clenching a dove, and the stormy clouds on the far right. Titian’s composition was probably inspired by figures on a Roman sarcophagus; the female body seen from behind may be based on an ancient design of Psyche discovering Cupid, known in the Renaissance as the Bed of Polyclitus, often found on reliefs and gems (Panofsky 1969, Rosand 1975, and Wethey 1975). The contrapposto of the figure and its ties to antique sculpture suggest that the painting represents the artist’s response to the Renaissance concept known as the paragone, or rivalry of the arts of painting and sculpture.
Titian’s studio produced numerous versions of the Venus and Adonis that can be divided into two major groups, known as the Farnese type and the Prado type (Wethey 1975, Bayer 2005, and Penny 2008). This example belongs to the Farnese type and probably follows the example painted by Titian in Rome for Cardinal Alessandro Farnese around 1545–46 (now lost, but known through an engraving by Sir Robert Strange of about 1769), which would account for the artist’s knowledge of ancient sources and Raphael’s work there. A painting in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, is derived from the same source. In both of these cases the artist returned to the composition decades later, perhaps as late as the last decade of his life. The Prado type, so named for the version sent in 1554 to Philip II in Spain (Museo del Prado, Madrid), differs from this one in numerous details: the shape of the canvas, the inclusion of an additional dog, the substitution of a sleeping cupid, the inclusion of Venus’s carriage in the sunburst at the upper right, and changes in some of the still life details. These compositions were enormously influential on artists ranging from Veronese to Rubens.
The Venus and Adonis is one of a group of canvases that Titian called poesie. By referring to the painting with this term Titian was aware of the comparison he was establishing with poetry as he imbued his work with the allusive and evocative power characteristic of the written word (Rosand 1972). The myth here may become a metaphor for the cycle of nature, through the death of Adonis and his return in the form of a flower, and an allegory of the perils of life guided by fate rather than reason (Gentili 1980).
Mariscotti family, Palazzo Mariscotti, Rome (until about 1804; sold to Camuccini); [V. Camuccini, Rome, until 1804; sold through James Irvine to Buchanan]; [William Buchanan, London, from 1804]; John Bligh, 4th Earl of Darnley, Cobham Hall, Kent (by 1816–d. 1831); Earls of Darnley, Cobham Hall (1831–1900); Ivo Francis Walter Bligh, 8th Earl of Darnley, Cobham Hall (1900–25; his sale, Christie's, London, May 1, 1925, no. 79, for £2,415 to Knoedler); [Knoedler, London and New York, and Colnaghi, London; 1925–27; sold for $80,000 to Bache]; Jules S. Bache, New York (1927–d. 1944; his estate, 1944–49; cats., 1929, unnumbered; 1937, no. 17; 1943, no. 16)
London. British Institution. 1816, no. 125 (as "Adonis going to the Chace," lent by the Earl of Darnley).
London. Royal Academy of Arts. "Winter Exhibition," 1876, no. 119 (as "Venus and Adonis," lent by the Earl of Darnley).
Detroit Institute of Arts. "Sixth Loan Exhibition of Old Masters: Paintings by Titian," February 1–15, 1928, no. 19 (lent by Mr. Jules Bache, New York).
Art Gallery of Toronto. "Loan Exhibition of Paintings," November 1–December 1, 1935, no. 26 (lent by Jules S. Bache, Esq., New York).
San Francisco. California Palace of the Legion of Honor. "Venetian Painting," June 25–July 24, 1938, no. 71 (lent by the Bache Collection, New York).
New York. World's Fair. "Masterpieces of Art: European Paintings and Sculpture from 1300–1800," May–October 1939, no. 384 (lent by the Jules S. Bache collection, New York).
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "The Bache Collection," June 16–September 30, 1943, no. 16.
Stockholm. Nationalmuseum. "Konstens Venedig," October 20, 1962–February 10, 1963, no. 97.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Venetian Paintings in the Metropolitan Museum," May 1–September 2, 1974, no catalogue.
Leningrad [St. Petersburg]. State Hermitage Museum. "100 Paintings from the Metropolitan Museum," May 22–July 27, 1975, no. 4.
Moscow. State Pushkin Museum. "100 Paintings from the Metropolitan Museum," August 28–November 2, 1975, no. 4.
Athens. National Pinakothiki, Alexander Soutzos Museum. "Treasures from The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York: Memories and Revivals of the Classical Spirit," August 15–November 15, 1979, no. 42.
Washington. National Gallery of Art. "Titian: Prince of Painters," October 28, 1990–January 27, 1991, no. 60.
Paris. Grand Palais. "Le siècle de Titien: L'âge d'or de la peinture à Venise," March 9–June 14, 1993, no. 256.
Braunschweig. Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum. "Amors Pfeil: Tizian und die Erotik in der Kunst," September 4–November 9, 2003, no. 15.
James Irvine. Letter to William Buchanan. June 30, 1804 [published in Ref. Buchanan 1824], writes from Rome that he has bought the picture for Buchanan from "the younger Camuccini," who bought it from the Mariscotti palace; as by Titian.
W[illiam]. Buchanan. Memoirs of Painting, with a Chronological History of the Importation of Pictures by the Great Masters into England since the French Revolution. London, 1824, vol. 1, p. 123; vol. 2, p. 153, as in the collection of the Earl of Darnley; publishes the letter from Irvine to Buchanan with details of its acquisition [see Ref. Irvine 1804].
[Gustav Friedrich] Waagen. Treasures of Art in Great Britain. London, 1854, vol. 3, pp. 18–19, as at Cobham Hall, in the collection of the earl of Darnley.
G[iovanni].-B[attista]. Cavalcaselle and J[oseph].-A[rcher]. Crowe. Tiziano, la sua vita e i suoi tempi. Vol. 2, repr., 1974. Florence, 1878, pp. 95–96 [English ed., "The Life and Times of Titian," 2 vols., London, 1881, vol. 2, pp. 151–52], call it a mediocre copy or imitation by a later artist of the version formerly in the Farnese collection (now lost).
Casimir Stryienski. La Galerie du Régent Philippe, duc d'Orléans. Paris, 1913, p. 46.
August L. Mayer. "Tizianstudien." Münchner Jahrbuch der bildenden Kunst, n.s., 2 (1925), pp. 276–79, fig. 7, as with Knoedler, London and New York.
Frank E. Washburn Freund. "Paintings by Titian in America." International Studio 90 (May 1928), p. 39, ill. p. 41, dates it about 1555; calls it superior in some ways to the version in the Prado.
Frank E. Washburn Freund. "Leih-Ausstellungen in Amerikanischen Museen." Der Cicerone 20 (1928), p. 258, ill. p. 256.
Walter Heil. "The Jules Bache Collection." Art News 27 (April 27, 1929), pp. 3–4.
A Catalogue of Paintings in the Collection of Jules S. Bache. New York, 1929, unpaginated, ill.
August L. Mayer. "Die Sammlung Jules Bache in New-York." Pantheon 6 (December 1930), p. 542.
Ludwig Burchard inUnknown Masterpieces in Public and Private Collections. Ed. Wilhelm R. Valentiner. Vol. 1, London, 1930, unpaginated, under no. 24, assigns it to the second, later, group of paintings of this subject, along with the Washington picture, which he believes to be the last of all the versions.
Bernhard Berenson. Italian Pictures of the Renaissance. Oxford, 1932, p. 573.
Wilhelm Suida. "Tizians 'Kind mit der Taube'." Belvedere 11 (July–December 1932), p. 166, fig. 147, groups it with the Washington version and a smaller example in a private collection, Paris.
Bernhard Berenson. Pitture italiane del rinascimento. Milan, 1936, p. 493.
A Catalogue of Paintings in the Bache Collection. under revision. New York, 1937, unpaginated, no. 17, ill.
A Catalogue of Paintings in the Bache Collection. rev. ed. New York, 1943, unpaginated, no. 16, ill.
Hans Tietze. Titian: The Paintings and Drawings. 2nd, rev. ed. London, 1950, p. 402, calls it a studio replica of the Washington painting.
Edoardo Arslan. Letter. April 21, 1952, calls it a school work.
Rodolfo Pallucchini. Tiziano: Lezioni tenute alla Facoltà di Lettere dell'Università di Bologna durante l'Anno 1953–54. Bologna, [1953–54], vol. 2, p. 77, attributes it to Titian and dates it after 1560.
Hans Tietze. "An Early Version of Titian's Danae: An Analysis of Titian's Replicas." Arte veneta 8 (1954), p. 202, tentatively suggests that the smaller versions of the composition, including this one, may be studio replicas by Orazio Vecellio.
Bernard Berenson. Italian Pictures of the Renaissance: Venetian School. London, 1957, vol. 1, p. 189; vol. 2, pl. 997.
Cecil Gould. The Sixteenth-Century Venetian School. London, 1959, pp. 99–100, under no. 34, dates it after 1554, later than the Prado painting; discusses in detail the two groups of versions and the issues connected with their provenance and dating.
Francesco Valcanover. Tutta la pittura di Tiziano. Milan, 1960, vol. 2, pp. 44–45, pl. 91 [English ed., "All the Paintings of Titian," New York, 1960, vol. 3, p. 47, pl. 91].
Erwin Panofsky. Problems in Titian, Mostly Iconographic. New York, 1969, p. 151 n. 34, suggests that Venus's pose derives from the Roman relief of Psyche and Cupid known as the "Bed of Polyclitus" (Hewett collection, Ashford, Kent), by way of the figure of Hebe in Raphael's "Marriage of Psyche" (Villa Farnesina, Rome).
Francesco Valcanover inL'opera completa di Tiziano. repr., 1978. Milan, 1969, p. 129, no. 428, ill. p. 128, attributes it to Titian with assistants and dates it 1560 or later.
Rodolfo Pallucchini. Tiziano. Florence, 1969, vol. 1, pp. 142, 315; vol. 2, pl. 475, dates it about 1560–65.
Harald Keller. Tizians Poesie für König Philipp II von Spanien. Wiesbaden, 1969, p. 191, calls it a copy after the Washington painting.
Calvin Tomkins. Merchants and Masterpieces: The Story of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1970, p. 316 [rev., enl. ed., 1989].
David Rosand. "'Ut Pictor Poeta': Meaning in Titian's 'Poesie'." New Literary History 3, no. 3 (1972), p. 539 n. 31, calls the MMA and Washington paintings "smaller format studio variants of the composition"; further explores the influence of the "Bed of Polyclitus" on the composition [see Ref. Panofsky 1969].
Burton B. Fredericksen and Federico Zeri. Census of Pre-Nineteenth-Century Italian Paintings in North American Public Collections. Cambridge, Mass., 1972, pp. 202, 475, 608.
Federico Zeri with the assistance of Elizabeth E. Gardner. Italian Paintings: A Catalogue of the Collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Venetian School. New York, 1973, pp. 81–82, pl. 95, state that "although some parts, especially areas in the landscape, are too weak to have been painted by Titian himself, the major part, including the three figures, can be considered his work"; date the MMA and Washington paintings to the late 1560s.
Harold E. Wethey. The Paintings of Titian. Vol. 3, The Mythological and Historical Paintings. London, 1975, pp. 59, 192–93, no. 43, pl. 97, attributes it to Titian and workshop and dates it about 1560–65.
David Rosand. "Titian and the 'Bed of Polyclitus'." Burlington Magazine 117 (April 1975), p. 245 n. 17.
Sylvia Hochfield. "Conservation: The Need is Urgent." Art News 75 (February 1976), pp. 32–33.
Fern Rusk Shapley. Catalogue of the Italian Paintings. Washington, 1979, vol. 1, pp. 493, 495 n. 6, states that the MMA and Washington paintings are "both attributed to Titian and studio and both believed to date in the mid-1560s".
Howard Hibbard. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1980, p. 276, fig. 505.
Fritz Heinemann Università degli Studi di Venezia. "La bottega di Tiziano." Tiziano e Venezia. Vicenza, 1980, p. 437, attributes it to Orazio Vecellio.
Jaynie Anderson. "Giorgione, Titian and the Sleeping Venus." Tiziano e Venezia. Vicenza, 1980, p. 339 n. 22, calls the MMA and Washington paintings workshop variants of the lost Farnese picture.
Augusto Gentili. Da Tiziano a Tiziano: mito e allegoria nella cultura veneziana del Cinquecento. Milan, 1980, pp. 115–16, 215 nn. 16, 17, fig. 72, attributes it to Titian with the collaboration of assistants and dates it to the end of the 1560s.
David Alan Brown inTitian: Prince of Painters. Exh. cat., Palazzo Ducale. Venice, 1990, pp. 328–30, no. 60, ill. (color), states that cleaning in 1976 revealed that the picture is in large part executed by Titian himself, and that the palette is typical of his work of the 1560s.
Colnaghi in America: A Survey to Commemorate the First Decade of Colnaghi New York. Ed. Nicholas H. J. Hall. New York, 1992, p. 131.
Marjorie E. Wieseman inThe Age of Rubens. Exh. cat., Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Boston, 1993, p. 586, under no. 127, calls it a replica of the Prado painting.
Francesco Valcanover inLe siècle de Titien: L'âge d'or de la peinture à Venise. Exh. cat., Grand Palais. Paris, 1993, pp. 616–17, no. 256, ill. pp. 238 (color) and 616 [2nd ed., rev. and corr., 1993, pp. 672–73, no. 256, ill. pp. 238 (color) and 672], following the cleaning in 1976, finds that the painting is superior to the version in Washington, mostly by Titian with minimal studio assistance, and dates from 1560–65.
Rona Goffen. Titian's Women. New Haven, 1997, pp. 248, 250, 314 n. 110, fig. 146.
Bruce D. Sutherland. "A Subtle Allusion in Titian's 'Venus and Adonis' Paintings." Venezia Cinquecento 9 (January–June 1999), pp. 37–38, 42, 46, 49, 51 nn. 16, 18, fig. 4, proposes that in his versions of this subject Titian intentionally positioned Adonis's spear over Venus's breast in order to allude to the "arrow pierced heart".
Maria Agnese Chiari Moretto Wiel in Filippo Pedrocco. Titian. New York, 2001, pp. 228, 260, no. 216, ill. (color).
Old Master Paintings: Part One. Sotheby's, London. July 10, 2003, p. 12, under no. 4, calls it a "partially autograph variant" of the lost Farnese painting.
Mila Horký. Amors Pfeil: Tizian und die Erotik in der Kunst. Exh. cat., Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum. Braunschweig, 2003, pp. 10, 13, 18, 60–62, 64, 66, 68, 79, 85, 97, no. 15, colorpl. III, ill. p. 60 and on front and back covers (color details).
David Rosand. "Inventing Mythologies: The Painter's Poetry." The Cambridge Companion to Titian. Ed. Patricia Meilman. Cambridge, 2004, p. 292 n. 24.
Meryle Secrest. Duveen: A Life in Art. New York, 2004, pp. 306–7.
Linda Borean. Lettere artistiche del Settecento veneziano. Vol. 2, Il carteggio Giovanni Maria Sasso - Abraham Hume. Verona, 2004, p. 227 n. 185.
Andrea Bayer. "North of the Apennines: Sixteenth-Century Italian Painting in Venice and the Veneto." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 63 (Summer 2005), pp. 12, 14–15, fig. 11 (color), ill. on cover (color detail), suggests that Titian based the composition not directly on Ovid, but on a retelling of the story by the Spanish writer Diego Hurtado de Mendoza published in Venice in 1553.
Nicholas Penny. The Sixteenth Century Italian Paintings. Vol. 2, Venice 1540–1600. London, 2008, pp. 277, 283, 289 n. 19, p. 291 nn. 69–70, pp. 449, 451 n. 16, thoroughly discusses all the versions of the composition, calling the MMA painting partly autograph.
The frame is from Venice and dates to about 1560 (see Additional Images, figs. 1–3). This rare giltwood frame with its original pale leaf is made of pine and adorned with a close succession of carved ornament which emanates from a center point. The acanthus and pearling at the sight edge rise to an animated top edge. Raking cabled flutes with shadowed hollows punctuated with pearls fall back to tassled swags. The back edge is carved in running acanthus leaves also punctuated with pearls, and the corner acanthus leaves’ spines are formed with a row of tapered pearling. Diagonal cuts on the vertical sides to resize the frame skillfully retain the intervals in the elegant ornament.
[Timothy Newbery with Cynthia Moyer 2016; further information on this frame can be found in the Department of European Paintings files]