Venus and Adonis

Titian, Venus and Adonis, 1553. Oil on canvas, 107.7 x 133.4 cm. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

In Venus and Adonis of 1553, Titian uses the figural pairing of the goddess and her lover the mortal hunter Adonis to address the human nature of Venus. Here the goddess is depicted as the victim of love as opposed to her normal role as the object of love. The work is among the mythological poesie he created for Philip II of Spain and therefore denotes his reinterpretation of the classical literary tradition as he uses Ovid’s Metamorphoses as a narrative source. Ovid relates Venus’s intense infatuation for Adonisafter she is accidentally struck by one of cupid arrows. As he states, the goddess is so love struck that, “even from heaven shee did absteyne. Shee lovd Adonis more/Thanheaven. To him shee clinged ay, and bare him companye,/And in the shadowe woont shee was to rest continually,/ And for to set her beawtye out most seemly to theeye.”[1]Titian clearly derives from Ovid’s text his portrayal of Venus as utterly besotted with Adonis. In both the literary and artistic forms, the goddess is no longer the inflictor of such feelings, but instead becomes victim to the very feelings she typically inspires in her male admirers.

While borrowing from Metamorphoses, the moment depicted in Venus and Adonis is one created by Titian himself. Once more, the artist is asserting himself as a painter-poet, and his paintings as poesie. According to Ovid, Venus becomes terrified that some harm will befall Adonis if he sets out to hunt larger game. She warns him by saying, “Thy tender youth, thy beawty bryght, thy countnance fayre and brave/Although they had the force to win the hart of Venus, have/No power ageinst the Lyons, nor ageinst the bristled swine.”[2] The thrill of the hunt is too much for him to resist and he disregards his lover’s warnings to embark with his hounds in pursuit of a boar that ultimately kills him. Titian however, constructs a narrative moment in between Venus’s warning and Adonis’s death. He paints the emotionally charged moment of Adonis’s departure for the hunt. Venus desperately tries to prevent him from leaving. She is no longer the dignified and indifferent representation of the feminine ideal, but is instead a frantic woman who is trying to exert every possible power and strength within to inhibit the man she loves from abandoning her and thus succumbing to his death.

In a gender role reversal, the Venus of this work is more masculine than feminine. Titian depicts her as aggressive, as almost violent in her physical attempts to restrain Adonis, and as completely driven to destruction by love. Once again, Titian has expertly produced in his rendering of Venus a complex psychological depth that cannot fail to incitie the sympathy of the viewer. The raw emotion of his goddess is undeniable and harkens back to Ovid’s account of the aftermath of Adonis’s death, at which point Venus, “leaped downe, and tare at once hir garments from her brist,/ And rent her heare, and beate upon her stomack with her fist.”[3]This intense grief is foreshadowed in the moment Titian creates on his luminous canvas. His goddess is more than a beautiful, or sexual object: she is a feeling human being worthy of respect and sympathy. As Goffen further expands:

Venus is conceived with a psychological complexity generally denied women in art and literature, that is, she is allowed to express the kind of complex emotion normally experienced only by men, at least in painting and poetry. Expressing passions familiar to a Renaissance audience as masculine, Venus invites the (male) beholder’s empathy.[4]

Here Venus embodies the passion and torment often inflicted by love. The narrative invented by Titian allowed for the artist to depict a very human goddess with dynamic and powerful emotion that corresponds with the Renaissance notion of the masculine. The narrative also allowed the Venetian painter to depict an alternative view of the goddess as he changes the figural composition.

Titian’s Venus and Adonis varies from his other works featuring the goddess, as it is the only Venus he depicts from the rear. Abandoning his usual composition of the frontal standing or reclining figure, Titian turns Venus away from the viewer so that her back and bottom become visible as she twists at the torso and presents her profile as she looks up at Adonis. She is half perched on a cloth as if representative of the precarious nature of love. The artist is certainly advertising his ability to represent the human body from a multitude of perspectives. It is this innovative reconfiguring that suggests the Ludovico Dolce was in fact greatly impressed by Titian’s naturalistic depiction of Venusas viewed from behind as well as the painter’s ability to suggest her intensely felt emotions. As he recounts in a letter to Alessandro Contarini describing the painting:

The Venus has her back turned, not for want of art—as in a certain painter’s performance—but to display art in double measure…she everywhere evinces certain feelings which are sweet and vital and such that they are not seen except in her. With her too, there is a marvelous piece of dexterity on the part of this divine spirit, in that one recognizes in the hindmost parts here the distention of sitting. Yes indeed, one can truthfully say that every stroke of the brush belongs with those strokes that nature is in the habit of making with its hand. Similarly, her look corresponds to the way one must believe that Venus would have looked if she ever existed… [5]

Dolce like many of his contemporaries recognizes the artistic merit in Titian’s innovative work, and his expertise as a painter.

It is through the innovative arrangement and the naturalistic depictions of the figures that Titian combines elements of sculpture and of painting, disegno and colorito. He uses the medium of painting to reference sculpture and to proclaim the former’s superiority over the latter (as well as his artistic superiority over his competitor Michelangelo). Titian in fact plays up the sculptural quality of Venus and Adonis as their bodies take on a grand, three-dimensional quality. He also references the classical tradition of sculpture, bringing it to life through the means of his brush. One of his likely sources for the composition was the Renaissance copy of the ancient Roman relief of the Bed of Polyclitus. The female figure in the relief twists her torso in a similar fashion as Titian’s Venus. This connection to classical sculpture is referenced by David Rosand, as he suggests that:

The figural group, unusual in Titan’s art, is capable of being translated back into the medium of carved relief. The form of Venus especially maintains the planarity that intentionally betrays her sculptural origins, although stone has here been transformed into warm flesh.[6]

This use of the colorito to add tonality and life to the lifeless medium of stone, is another way that Titian presents his work as representative of the value of painting over sculpture. He stresses the ways in which the medium of paint is as capable as the medium of stone in suggesting multiple points of view. Yet unlike sculpture which requires the viewer to physically circle the work in order to see all offered perspectives, paintings such as Venus and Adonis offer a variety of perspectives incorporated into one two-dimensional image. The viewer is then able to contemplate multiple points of view simultaneously, and therefore receive a better understanding of the work of art in its entirety.

bed-of-polyclitus


[1] Ovid. Ovid’s Metamorphosis: The Arthur Golding Translation, (Philadelphia: Dry Books, 2000), 265.

[2] Ibid., 266.

[3] Ovid, Metamorphoses, 271.

[4] Goffen, Women, 238.

[5] Mark W. Roskill, Dolce’s ‘Aretino’ and Venetian Art Theory of the Cinquecento (New

York: New York University Press, 1968), 215.

[6] Patricia Meilman, Cambridge, 45.

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