Adonis

adonis
Adonis
Oil on wood panel
Monogrammed and dated: HG 1613 (centre, right)
52 x 40cm (20.5 x 15.75 in.)

Provenance

Private collection, Canada


Love comforeth like sunshine after rain,
But Lust’s effect is tempest after sun.
Love’s gentle spring doth always fresh remain;
Lust’s winter comes ere summer half be done.
Love surfeits not,
Lust like a glutton dies;
Love is all truth,
Lust full of forged lies.

William Shakespeare, Venus and Adonis, 1593

Goltzius’ Adonis is a strikingly handsome young man, presented in half profile, with short curly brown hair, holding a staff or spear and a hunter’s horn. A fur-lined red cape is draped over his left shoulder, leaving the other bare, exposing a muscular torso and firm golden-toned skin. A small golden earring adorns the young man’s right earlobe. His direct gaze at the viewer is proud and determined.

In ancient Greek mythology Adonis was the companion of Aphrodite, the goddess of love, beauty and fertility. He was the offspring of Myrrha and her father, King Cinyras of Cyprus. The gods punished Myrrha for her incestuous lust for her father and transformed her into a myrrh tree, out of which Adonis was born. Aphrodite adopted the child and had him raised by the queen of the Underworld, Persephone. The boy developed into a young man of exceptional beauty, which caused a rivalry between the goddesses. Zeus eventually intervened. He decided that Adonis should spend four months of the year with Persephone, another four with Aphrodite, and the remaining time with whomever he preferred. Adonis decided to spend most of the year with Aphrodite.

During the first century AD, the Roman poet Ovid included the story of Venus and Adonis in his epic Metamorphoses, which half a millennium later inspired William Shakespeare to compose a narrative poem about the famous pair. Both literary works enjoyed extraordinary popularity. They tell the story of Venus, Aphrodite’s equivalent in the Roman Pantheon, who is enamored with the striking Adonis, but cannot win his love. The lovely goddess tries to seduce him, but Adonis has no eyes for her and is only interested in game hunting. Venus asks him for another rendezvous, but he declines, determined to go hunting for wild boar the next day. In the morning Venus hears Adonis’ hounds howling and rushes out in her swan-drawn chariot to look for the young hunter, only to find him wounded by a boar. He dies in her arms, as the goddess weeps bitterly.

The famous mythical story about beauty, mortality, love, and lust inspired numerous depictions of Venus and Adonis throughout art history. Hendrick Goltzius dedicated several artworks to the theme. The present portrait of the young hunter, which is signed by the artist with his initials and dated to 1613, most likely had a pendant, originally, depicting his counterpart, the goddess Venus.

During the same year, Goltzius portrayed another legendary couple – Adam and Eve – in a quite similar fashion. This picture pair has been separated, as well. Today Adam is owned by the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut, USA, and Eve by the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Strasbourg, France.


Hendrick Goltzius, Adam and Eve, 1613
Adam: Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut
Eve, Musée des Beaux-Arts in Strasbourg, France.

The Wadsworth Atheneum’s Adam shows a remarkable physical resemblance to our Adonis. Both paintings were created during the same year, and it seems as if Goltzius used the same male model for both pictures. The young man − no matter if fictitious or a living model– apparently embodied the artist’s ideal of male beauty. He seems to reappear in several other paintings by Goltzius between 1609 and 1616.

In 1609, Goltzius created an unusual work in lozenge format, featuring the dying Adonis, which is now owned by the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. It shows the young hunter lying dead on the forest floor. A beautiful red flower − an Anemone, according to Ovid − is emerging from his blood. Here, Goltzius chose a peculiar perspective for Adonis, who is shown from his soles upward, clearly referencing Mantegna’s iconic Lamentation of Christ (c.1480), which the artists probably saw during his travels through Italy in 1590-91.

dying adonis

Hendrick Goltzius
Dying Adonis, 1609
Oil on canvas, 76.5cm × 76.5cm Rijksmuseum SK-A-1284
Signed and and dated: ‘HG 1609’

Another work by Goltzius in the collection of the Munich Pinakothek, dated 1614, shows Venus and Adonis in an intimate moment, while she is trying to seduce him. The couple rests under a tree, accompanies by Cupid, Venus’ son, who is playing with Adonis’ hound. The goddess’ swan-drawn chariot is waiting in the distance. In this picture, Adonis is of a similar type as the above-mentioned young hunter. His attributes – the red cape, spear, and hunting horn look identical, as well.

venus and adonis
HENDRICK GOLTZIUS, Venus and Adonis, 1614, oil on canvas,
141 x 191 cm, formerly Bayreuth castle Germany,
Alte Pinakothek, Munich, Inv. Nr. 5613

In The Fall of Man, a work in the collection of the National Gallery in Washington, created in 1616, Goltzius shows Adam and Eve reclining in the Garden of Eden, sharing the forbidden fruit. Again, Adam physically resembles the young, muscular, dark-haired male figures in the above-mentioned pictures.

the fall of man

Hendrick Goltzius,The Fall of Man, 1616
Oil on canvas 104.5 x 138.4 cm
National Gallery, Washington D.C., USA

Probably the closest comparable work to the present picture is Goltzius’ half portrait of Adonis located in the Brukenthal Museum in Sibiu, Romania. Although the painting had been listed in the museum’s records as a depiction of Endymion, another famously beautiful young hunter in Greek mythology, art historians agree today, that this young man is actually a representation of Adonis. Other than the diamond-shaped format, which Glotzius seemed to enjoy, the composition of this work is very similar to our present Adonis. The young hunter’s pose and attributes – spear and horn – are identical to the ones in our picture, however, the young man’s hair is longer, his facial features softer, and the colour of his cape is a dark blue instead of red. 

adonis

Hendrick Goltzius
Adonis (formerly entiteld: Endymion)
52 x 52 cm
Brukenthal Museum, Sibiu, Romania

The present painting of Adonis is a recent discovery, which appeared on the Canadian art market in 2014, coming from a Belgian private collection. Dr. Lawrence Nichols, leading expert on Hendrick Goltzius, supports the painting’s attribution to the artist. He suggests that the work is possibly identical with Goltzius’ Actaeon in a 1742 Amsterdam sale record, listed as B-43 in his catalogue raisonné. (Dr. Lawrence Nichols: The Paintings of Hendrick Goltzius, 1558-1617, A Monograph and Catalogue Raisonné. Davaco b.v., Doornspijk, March, 2013).

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