The subject is from Ovid’s Metamorphoses (completed 8 A.D). Accidently pricked by one of Cupid’s arrows, Venus fell in love with the handsome hunter Adonis. Rubens shows their leave-taking—a Renaissance embellishment famously depicted by Titian (see his canvas in Gallery 607). With manly indifference to the goddess’s charms and her warnings of danger, Adonis hunted a wild boar and was gored to death. Except for its conclusion, the story was well suited to decorate grand country houses, where the chase occupied noblemen indoors and out.
Rubens had a special talent for depicting mythological lovers, based partly on his profound knowledge of classical literature and sculpture, and on the importance of figure studies, based on live models, to his work in general. He was also exceptionally familiar with paintings by Italian artists who might be described as masters of sensuality, such as Titian, Correggio, Caravaggio, Annibale Carracci, and others.
This large canvas was probably painted about 1635–37, presumably as decoration for a large country house, considering that Adonis was a hunter. The picture’s earliest trace, in the collection of the Elector of Bavaria (until 1706), does not discourage the supposition. The composition is broadly inspired by Titian’s painting of the same subject (Museo del Prado, Madrid), which Rubens copied when he stayed in Madrid in 1628–29. The copy, now lost, is listed in the 1640 inventory of Rubens’s estate.
Titian has been credited with inventing the so-called leave-taking of Adonis, which in any case was a Renaissance embellishment of the story told in Ovid's Metamorphoses, X, lines 519 onward. Venus, grazed by one of Cupid’s arrows, falls in love with the handsome Adonis. She takes up his occupation as a hobby, wins his love, and then frets about his confrontations with big game. In Ovid’s account she departs first, in her swan-drawn chariot, but Titian and Rubens have Adonis striding off with manly indifference, toward a fatal encounter with a wild boar.
Radiography reveals that the expression of Rubens’s Adonis, in contrast to Titian’s, was originally somber and thus consistent with the Northern European tradition of moralizing Ovid’s tales. In this and in aspects of the composition (especially Venus’s pose) Rubens may have followed an engraving after Crispiin de Passe I, of 1600. But the classical pose of Adonis (recalling the famous Horse Tamers in Rome), Venus’s pillowy charms, Cupid’s precocious wrestling hold, and the muscular ballet that the trio performs are all distinctive of Rubens, whose learning always served his love of humanity.
[Walter Liedtke 2012]
Maximilian II Emanuel, Elector of Bavaria, Munich (until 1706; seized by Emperor Joseph I and presented to Churchill); John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough, Blenheim Palace, Woodstock, Oxfordshire (1706–d. 1722); the Dukes of Marlborough, Blenheim Palace (1722–1883; cat., 1861, p. 27); George Charles Spencer-Churchill, 8th Duke of Marlborough, Blenheim Palace (1883–d. 1892; his sale, Christie's, London, July 24 and 26, 1886, no. 75, for £7,560, bought in by Agnew for Marlborough); his widow, Lilian Warren, Dowager Duchess of Marlborough, later Lady William Leslie de la Poer Beresford (1892–d. 1909); Colonel Oliver Payne, New York (1909–d. 1917); his nephew, Harry Payne Bingham (1917–37; on loan to MMA, 1920–37)
London. Royal Academy of Arts. "Winter Exhibition," January–March 1885, no. 146 (lent by the Duke of Marlborough).
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Fiftieth Anniversary Exhibition," May 8–August 1920, not in catalogue.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "The Taste of Today in Masterpieces of Painting before 1900," July 10–October 2, 1932, no catalogue (lent by Harry Payne Bingham).
New York. Wildenstein & Co., Inc. "A Loan Exhibition of Rubens," February 20–March 31, 1951, no. 34.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Art Treasures of the Metropolitan," November 7, 1952–September 7, 1953, no. 113.
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. "Masterpieces of Painting in The Metropolitan Museum of Art," September 16–November 1, 1970, unnumbered cat. (p. 39).
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Masterpieces of Fifty Centuries," November 15, 1970–February 15, 1971, no. 276.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Nudes in Landscapes: Four Centuries of a Tradition," May 18–August 5, 1973, no catalogue.
Maximilian Carl, Graf von Löwenstein-Rochefort. Letter to Wenzeslaus, Graf Wratislaw. November 23, 1706 [published in Ref. Gräff 1922], mentions the delivery of four pictures, including this work, to John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough, on behalf of Emperor Joseph I.
Maximilian Carl, Graf von Löwenstein-Rochefort. Letter to Wenzeslaus, Graf Wratislaw. November 9, 1706 [published in Ref. Gräff 1922], mentions works by Rubens, including this picture, chosen for John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough, from the collection of the exiled Maximilian II Emanuel, Elector of Bavaria.
The New Oxford Guide. 4th ed. Oxford, [1765?], p. 94, as at Blenheim.
[Thomas Martyn]. The English Connoisseur: Containing an Account of Whatever is Curious in Painting, Sculpture, &c. in the Palaces and Seats of the Nobility and Principal Gentry of England, Both in Town and Country. London, 1766, vol. 1, p. 21.
A Tour from Stow to Blenheim and Ditchley . . . London, [1770?], p. 9, no. 2 [see Ref. Burchard 1951].
A New Pocket Companion for Oxford. Oxford, 1810, p. 135, as given to the Duke of Marlborough by Emperor Joseph I.
The Oxford University and City Guide. 2nd ed. Oxford, [1819?], p. 168.
Horace Walpole. Anecdotes of Painting in England. London, 1828, vol. 2, p. 179.
John Smith. A Catalogue Raisonné of the Works of the Most Eminent Dutch, Flemish, and French Painters. Vol. 2, London, 1830, p. 245, no. 834.
M. Passavant. Tour of a German Artist in England. London, 1836, vol. 2, p. 7 [German ed., "Kunstreise durch England und Belgien," Frankfurt, 1833, p. 176; see Ref. Burchard 1951].
G[ustav]. F[riedrich]. Waagen. Works of Art and Artists in England. London, 1838, vol. 2, p. 236.
G[ustav]. F[riedrich]. Waagen. Kunstwerke und Künstler in England und Paris. Vol. 2, Kunstwerke und Künstler in England. Berlin, 1838, p. 50.
André van Hasselt. Histoire de P.-P. Rubens. Brussels, 1840, p. 305, no. 811.
[Gustav Friedrich] Waagen. Treasures of Art in Great Britain. London, 1854, vol. 3, p. 131 [text similar to Ref. Waagen 1838].
Alfred Michiels. Catalogue des tableaux et dessins de Rubens. Paris, 1854, p. 28, no. 708.
William Hazlitt. Criticisms on Art: and Sketches of the Picture Galleries of England. 2nd ed. [1st ed., 1844]. London, 1856, p. lxxxi, no. 154.
George Scharf. Catalogue Raisonné; or, A List of the Pictures in Blenheim Palace. London, 1861, p. 27.
Fr[ie]dr[ich]. Goeler von Ravensburg. Rubens und die Antike. Jena, Germany, 1882, p. 211, no. 181.
Léon Gauchez. "Blenheim Palace." L'art 33 (1883), p. 214.
Walter Armstrong. "Winter Exhibitions." Art-Journal, n.s., (February 1885), p. 62.
Claude Phillips. "Correspondance d'Angleterre." Gazette des beaux-arts, 2nd ser., 31 (1885), p. 274.
George Redford. Art Sales. London, 1888, vol. 2, p. 324.
"Nouvelles des ventes." Bulletin-Rubens 3 (1888), p. 95.
Max Rooses. L'Oeuvre de P. P. Rubens. Vol. 3, Antwerp, 1890, p. 178, no. 694, dates it about 1620, cites the influence of Titian's painting in the Prado, and attributes the landscape to Wildens.
Max Rooses. Rubens. London, 1904, vol. 1, p. 192 [French ed., "Rubens, sa vie et ses oeuvres," (1900–1903), pp. 192–93], as painted "well before 1628".
Edward Dillon. Rubens. London, , pp. 113–14, calls it the most famous of a series of depictions by Rubens of this subject, the first of which is probably a version in the Hermitage.
Max Rooses. "Œuvre de Rubens: Addenda et corrigenda." Bulletin-Rubens 5 (1910), p. 306, identifies either this work or a version in the Hope collection, London [see Ref. Rooses 1890, no. 696], with the picture mentioned in the 1686 inventory of Jean van Weerden.
Harry B. Wehle. "A Pagan Painting by Rubens." Art in America 8 (October 1920), pp. 293–94, 297, ill. p. 295.
"Pictures Lent for the Fiftieth Anniversary Exhibition." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 15 (August 1920), pp. 190–91.
Walter Gräff. "Die Schenkung Josephs I. an Marlborough." Münchner Jahrbuch der bildenden Kunst 12 (1922), pp. 142, 144–45, 149, cites it in letters from Emperor Joseph I's administrator in Munich, Maximilian Carl, Graf von Löwenstein-Rochefort, to Wenzeslaus, Graf Wratislaw, the emperor's ambassador in England.
Foreword by Ernst Buchner. Ältere Pinakothek München: Amtlicher Katalog. 18th ed. Munich, 1936, p. XIV.
Jacob Burckhardt. Rubens. Vienna, 1938, p. 444, pl. 101 [English ed., "Rubens, Paintings and Drawings," 1939, by R. A. M. Stevenson, p. 296, pl. 101], dates it about 1635, suggesting that it was a pendant to the "Atalanta and Meleager" in the Alte Pinakothek, Munich.
"A Rubens Gift to the Metropolitan: the Newly Cleaned 'Venus and Adonis'." Art News 36 (January 22, 1938), p. 8, ill.
Harry B. Wehle. "Venus and Adonis by Rubens." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 33 (September 1938), pp. 193–96, ill., reports that cleaning has revealed it to be a late work of about 1635.
James W. Lane. "Notes from New York." Apollo 28 (November 1938), p. 253, ill. p. 255.
Weltkunst 12 (October 9, 1938), ill. p. 8.
R. A. M. Stevenson. Rubens, Paintings and Drawings. New York, , p. 296, pl. 101 [German ed., "Rubens," 1938, by Jacob Burckhardt, p. 444, pl. 101], dates it about 1635, suggesting that it was a pendant to the "Atalanta and Meleager" in the Alte Pinakothek, Munich.
Hans Gerhard Evers. Rubens und sein Werk: Neue Forschungen. Brussels, 1943, p. 136.
Margaret Breuning. "Metropolitan Re-Installs Its Treasures in Attractive Settings." Art Digest 18 (June 1, 1944), p. 6.
Aimée Crane, ed. A Gallery of Great Paintings. New York, 1944, ill. p. 22 (color).
Edward Alden Jewell. "Activities in the Art World: Up to Metropolitan, And Then Into Deep Water." New York Times (August 20, 1944), p. 2X, ill., dates it about 1635.
Art News Annual (1945–46), p. 73, ill. p. 72.
W. R. Valentiner. "Rubens' Paintings in America." Art Quarterly 9 (Spring 1946), p. 168, no. 142, fig. 9, as almost completely by Rubens; dates it about 1639.
Harry B. Wehle. "The Feast of Acheloüs by Rubens." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 4 (March 1946), p. 183.
Jan-Albert Goris and Julius S. Held. Rubens in America. New York, 1947, p. 38, no. 77, pls. 77, 78 (overall and detail), as from about 1635, and entirely by Rubens.
Ludwig Burchard. A Loan Exhibition of Rubens. Exh. cat., Wildenstein & Co., Inc. New York, 1951, p. 28, no. 34, ill. on cover (color detail), dates it about 1637.
Paul Bird. "Rubens Presented in First New York Show." Art Digest 25 (March 1, 1951), p. 7, ill. on cover.
"The Rubens Genius." Art News 50 (March 1951), p. 31, ill. p. 30 (color), states that "it seems to come from the master's hand alone".
Art Treasures of the Metropolitan: A Selection from the European and Asiatic Collections of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1952, p. 228, no. 113, colorpl. 113.
Erik Larsen. P. P. Rubens. Antwerp, 1952, p. 220, no. 111, dates it about 1638–40.
Julius S. Held. Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640). New York, 1954, pp. 7–8, pl. II [see Ref. Liedtke 1984].
Theodore Rousseau Jr. "A Guide to the Picture Galleries." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 12, part 2 (January 1954), p. 4, ill. p. 27.
A. Hyatt Mayor. "The Gifts that Made the Museum." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 16 (November 1957), p. 106.
"Figure Composition." Artist 55 (August 1958), p. 113, ill.
Philippe de Montebello. Rubens. New York, 1968, pp. 34, 46, no. 16, ill. and color slide, suggests that it may have been among the paintings illustrating scenes from Ovid that Rubens designed for Philip IV's hunting lodge.
Erwin Panofsky. Problems in Titian, Mostly Iconographic. New York, 1969, p. 154 n. 41, suggests that the figure of Venus is modeled "after the fashion of the dying Creüsa in classical Medea sarcophagi".
Sveltana [L.] Alpers. Corpus Rubenianum Ludwig Burchard. part 9, The Decoration of the Torre de la Parada. London, 1971, p. 79.
John Rupert Martin. Corpus Rubenianum Ludwig Burchard. part 16, The Decorations for the Pompa Introitus Ferdinandi. London, 1972, p. 211, under no. 53.
Reinhold Baumstark. "Ikonographische Studien zu Rubens Kriegs-und Friedensallegorien." Aachener Kunstblätter 45 (1974), p. 230 n. 443, suggests that it dates from about 1635.
Kathleen Ann Roy and Susan Danly Walther inRubenism. Exh. cat., Brown University. Providence, 1975, p. 24.
M[aria]. Varshavskaya. Rubens' Paintings in the Hermitage Museum. Leningrad [St. Petersburg], 1975, p. 87, under no. 8.
Ulla Krempel inKurfürst Max Emanuel, Bayern und Europa um 1700. Exh. cat., Altes Schloss Schleissheim. Vol. 1, "Zur Geschichte und Kunstgeschichte der Max-Emanuel-Zeit."Munich, 1976, pp. 223–24, 237 n. 22.
Frans Baudouin. Pietro Pauolo Rubens. Antwerp, 1977, p. 352, colorpl. 90.
Howard Hibbard. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1980, pp. 300, 309, fig. 538 (color).
Albert Blankert. "Classicism in Dutch Painting, 1614–1670." Gods, Saints & Heroes: Dutch Painting in the Age of Rembrandt. Exh. cat., National Gallery of Art. Washington, 1980, p. 183, fig. 2, compares it with examples of the subject by Goltzius (Munich, Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, on loan to Alte Pinakothek) and Jacob Backer (Kronberg, Kurhesschische Hausstiftung, Schlossverwaltung Fasanerie).
Julius S. Held. "Rubens and Titian." Titian, His World and His Legacy. Ed. David Rosand. New York, 1982, pp. 316, 321, 324, fig. 7.32.
Walter A. Liedtke. "Flemish Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum—I: Rubens." Tableau 6 (November/December 1983), pp. 85–86, fig. 5 (color).
Walter A. Liedtke. Flemish Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1984, vol. 1, pp. 151–55, fig. 29 (radiograph detail); vol. 2, colorpl. XI, pl. 61, dates it about the same time as, or perhaps slightly earlier than, Rubens's "The Horrors of War" (Palazzo Pitti, Florence) of 1637–38.
Charles Scribner III. Peter Paul Rubens. New York, 1989, pp. 35, 39, 112, 122, colorpl. 35, and ill. on dust jacket (color, overall and detail), dates it about 1635.
Jeffrey M. Muller. Rubens: The Artist as Collector. Princeton, 1989, p. 21.
Michael Jaffé. Rubens: catalogo completo. Milan, 1989, pp. 348–49, no. 1204, ill., dates it 1635–38.
Jeffrey M. Muller in "The Quality of Grace in the Art of Van Dyck." Anthony van Dyck. Exh. cat., National Gallery of Art. Washington, 1990, p. 33, fig. 8.
Introduction by Walter A. Liedtke inFlemish Paintings in America: A Survey of Early Netherlandish and Flemish Paintings in the Public Collections of North America. Antwerp, 1992, pp. 25, 363, no. 419, ill.
Kristin Lohse Belkin. Rubens. London, 1998, p. 277, figs. 187–88 (color, overall and detail).
David Freedberg in "Rubens and Titian: Art and Politics." Titian and Rubens: Power, Politics, and Style. Exh. cat., Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Boston, 1998, p. 57.
Paul Oppenheimer. Rubens, A Portrait: Beauty and the Angelic. London, 1999, pp. 341, 387 n. 112, colorpl. XVI, suggests that it may be seen as a pendant to the "Judgment of Paris" in the Prado, Madrid.
Harald Marx inDresden in the Ages of Splendor and Enlightenment. Exh. cat., Columbus Museum of Art. Columbus, 1999, p. 154, under no. 41, cites it as a precedent for Silvestre's "Venus and Adonis" (Gemäldegalerie, Dresden), noting that it seems likely that Silvestre knew Rubens's composition from an engraving only.
Bruce D. Sutherland. "A Subtle Allusion in Titian's 'Venus and Adonis' Paintings." Venezia Cinquecento 9 (January–June 1999), p. 51 n. 17, fig. 7.
León Krempel. Studien zu den datierten Gemälden des Nicolaes Maes (1634–1693). Petersberg, Germany, 2000, p. 130 n. 181.
Astrid Becker inFaszination Venus: Bilder einer Göttin von Cranach bis Cabanel. Ed. Ekkehard Mai with the assistance of Ursula Weber-Woelk. Exh. cat., Wallraf-Richartz-Museum. Cologne, 2000, p. 299.
Susan Lawson. Rubens. London, 2006, pp. 49–50, fig. 16, dates it about 1635.
Nicholas Penny. The Sixteenth Century Italian Paintings. Vol. 2, Venice 1540–1600. London, 2008, pp. 287–88, fig. 9 (color), calls it "a highly sophisticated complement to Titian's [paintings of this subject]".
Old Master & British Paintings: Evening Sale. Christie's, London. July 7, 2016, p. 72, under no. 12.
Francis Russell inOld Master & British Paintings Evening Sale. Christie's, London. July 7, 2016, p. 76, fig. 22 (color).
This picture was influenced by but not modeled after Titian's "Venus and Adonis" (Prado, Madrid), which Rubens copied in Madrid in 1628–29. On the whole, however, Rubens's design, in composition and mood, is more like the engraving after a design by the printmaker Crispijn de Passe I that was published by Hondius in 1600 (see Liedtke 1984, fig. 31). It is likely that Rubens based his Adonis upon some ancient statue or relief of a figure holding a spear, or upon the Dioskouroi (Piazza del Quirinale, Rome).
Other versions of this subject by Rubens are known.