Art History 101

Titian’s Venus and Adonis (Metamorphoses III)

Isla Phillips-Ewen 11 December 2019 min Read

In a series of articles we are going to meet each of the seven Poesies, which Titian delivered Phillip II of Spain in the 1550s and early 1560s. Every painting-poem translated a small section of the Epic poem Metamorphoses, by the Roman poet Ovid. We have already met Danaë and today we will hear the story of Venus and Adonis.

Titian's Venus and Adonis
Titian, Venus and Adonis, 1554, Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain.

The Story of the Myth

Although the god of love (Cupid) is absent from the first Poesie, the ultimate goddess of love (Venus, Cupid’s mightier mother) is center stage in the next. The mortal hunter, Adonis, is being accosted by nude Venus. In the background Cupid is sleeping – while Love herself is busy it is time for everyone else to rest. More importantly, we see Cupid’s bow and arrows hung on the tree. In the myth the cause of Venus’ unlikely infatuation with a human is that she had been accidentally stung by the arrow of love.

Titian's Venus and Adonis
Titian, Venus and Adonis, 1554, Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain. Detail.

Ovid’s Poetry and Titian’s Retelling

Venus has told Adonis, who was off hunting, to be careful of lions and boars because they have a grudge against her. Adonis asks why and Venus says:

“But now the unaccustomed effort tires me, and, look, a poplar tree entices us with its welcome shade, and the turf yields a bed. I should like to rest here on the ground,” (and she rested) “with you.” She hugged the grass, and him, and leaning her head against the breast of the reclining youth, she spoke these words, interspersing them with kisses.”

Ovid, Metamorphoses, X. 554-559.

Despite listening to her warning tale, Adonis still goes out for the hunt and does get gored by a boar. Perhaps, then, the sleeping Cupid is also a symbol of Adonis’ ignorance to Venus’ entreaties?

The Beautiful Bottom of Venus

Once again, there are multiple versions of this painting. However, Venus and Adonis outdoes the others with around thirty different known versions; attesting to it’s popularity. There is a date for only Philip’s version because it is documented in a correspondence. In the letter Titian explained that Venus and Adonis would compliment Danaë, offering both the front and back of a nude. He said that this allowed the pair to compete with sculpture! The sitting female bottom was very erotic at the time because of it’s relative novelty.

Titian's Venus and Adonis
Titian, Venus and Adonis, 1554, Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain. Detail.

Titian’s Poesies – A Series

Stay tuned to find out bout Titian’s third Poesie, Perseus and Andromeda, and find last week’s Danaë here.

Four things to look out for in the Poesies:

1. The female nude, which would be hard to miss

These famous paintings achieve many things, not least their depictions of the female nude from all possible angles.

2. D-R-A-M-A, again, hard to miss

Their greatest feat however is the way Titian captures the drama of the stories from Metamorphoses. Each Poesie focuses on the moment just before the climax. They are incredible to behold even if you don’t know the myth behind them and can even captivate and engage the most astute viewer because of their specificity to the Ovidian poem.

3. Pairings

They’re marvelous as stand-alone paintings, in pairs and as a set. Taken as duos the paintings often mirror each other visually.

4. Drapery, dogs and dead-pan stares

As a set the Poesies offer coherent motifs, such as the dogs, the red drapery, and the power play of the gaze.


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