Venus and Adonis


Venus and Adonis (England, c.1803 - 1805)

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Oil and tempera on canvas
Signed J.M.W.Turner


149.00cm high
119.40cm wide
(58.66 inches high)
(47.01 inches wide)
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John Green of Blackheath; his sale:
Christie's, London, April 26, 1830, lot 82; sold for 83 guineas to:
H. A. J. Munro of Novar (1830-1878); his sale:
Christie's, April 6, 1878, lot 103; sold for 1850 guineas to:
E. Benjamin
C. Becket-Denison; his sale:
Christie's, June 13, 1885, lot 892; sold for 1450 guineas to:
Thomas Agnew & Son
Sir William Cuthbert Quilter, Bt., M.P.; his sale:
Christie's, July 9, 1909, lot 82 unsold; thence by descent to:
Sir Raymond Quilter, Bt.
Leggatt, London, 1960; sold to:
Huntington Hartford Collection, New York, 1960-71
Christopher Gibbs, London, 1972
Fine Arts Society, London
Alberto Jaimes-Berti, London, 1978
Private Collection


John Burnet and Peter Cunningham, Turner and His Works, London 1852, pages 30, 44, 121, number 247
Alaric A. Watts, Liber Fluviorum or River Scenery of France, 1853, page XXX
Dr. [Gustave] Waagen, Treasures of Art in Great Britain, London 1854, Volume II, page 140
Walter Thornbury, The Life of J. M.W. Turner, R.A., 1862, Volume I, page 58; II, pages 190, 327, 345, 400; second edition, 1877, pages 33, 300, 395, 526, 547, 597
William Frost and Henry Reeve, Catalogue of the Collection of Munro of Novar, 1865, page 94, number 120
W. Cosmo Monkhouse, Turner, 1879, page 52
F. Wedmore, Turner and Ruskin, 1900, Volume I., reproduced opposite page 62
C. F. Bell, A List of the Works Contributed to Public Exhibitions by J. M. W. Turner, R.A., 1901, page 158, number 264
Sir William Armstrong, Turner, 1902, pages 104, 105, 107, 108, 161, 217; reproduced in frontispiece
A. J. Finberg, The Life of J. M. W. Turner, R.A., 1961, pages 98, 118, 425, 510, number 583
John Rothenstein and Martin Butlin, Turner, London 1964, pages 18, 73, pl. 24
Catalogue of Paintings from the Huntington Hartford Collection in the Gallery of Modern Art, New York 1964, pl. 4., number 60.5
Jack Lindsay, J. M. W. Turner, His Life and Work, A Critical Biography, 1966, page 245, number 3
John Gage, Colour in Turner: Poetry and Truth, 1969, page 141, pl. 62
Graham Reynolds, Turner, 1969, pages 56, 62, 204, fig. 38.
Turner, 1775-1851, exhibition catalogue, London 1974, pages 151-2, number 78
Luke Herrmann, Turner: Paintings, Watercolours, Prints and Drawings, Boston 1975, page 235
Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll, The Paintings of J. M. W. Turner, New Haven-London 1977, pages 100-1, catalogue number 150, pl. 161
Andrew Wilton, J. M. W. Turner; His Art and Life, New York 1979, pages 84, 223, pl. 77, catalogue number P150
John Gage, ed., Collected Correspondence of J. M. W. Turner, Oxford 1980, page 272
Andrew Wilton, Turner in his Time, London, pages 57-8,84-6, 188, 233-4, pl.73.
Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll, L'opera completa di Turner, Milan 1982, Volume I, page 78, number 53
Ronald Paulson, Literary Landscape; Turner and Constable, New Haven-London 1982, page 72
Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, revised edition, New Haven-London 1984, pages 113-15, catalogue number 150, pl. 49
Jerold Ziff, Turner et les grands maîtres, in J. M. W. Turner, exhibition catalogue, Paris, Grand Palais, 1984, pages 28-29 illustrated
Cecilia Powell, Turner in the South: Rome, Naples, Florence, New Haven, 1987, pages 193-4, illustrated
John Gage, J.M.W. Turner: A Wonderful Range of Mind, New Haven, 1987, page 100, pl.125
Kathleen Nicholson, Turner's Classical Landscapes: Myth and Meaning, Princeton, 1987, pages 62-3, page 74, page 275, pl. 35
David Blayney Brown, The Art of J.M.W. Turner, London 1990, page 52
Andrew Wilton, Painting and Poetry, Turner's Verse Book and his work of 1804-1812, exhibition catalogue, London,1990, page 80 illustrated
Anthony Bailey, Standing in the Sun, A Life of J. M. W. Turner, London 1997, pages 329-30
James Hamilton, Turner, A Life, London 1997, pages 82, 238.
Gerald Finley, Angel in the Sun, Turner's Visions of History, Montreal-Kingston 1999, pages 48 illustrated, 49, 55

Exhibition History

London, Royal Academy, 1849, number 206
London, Royal Academy, 1887, number 149
London, Guildhall, 1897, number 65
London, Royal Academy, 1906, number 28
London, Tate Gallery, J. M. W. Turner, R.A., 1955-60
London, Leggatt, Autumn Exhibition, 1960, number 29
New York, Huntington Hartford Museum, 1960-71.
London, Christoper Gibbs Ltd., Painting in England, 1799-1900, 1973-4, number 3
London, Tate Gallery and Royal Academy, Turner 1775-1851, 1974-75, number 78
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Description / Expertise

Turner’s Venus and Adonis is one of the artist’s most dramatic and significant paintings from the first decade of the nineteenth century. It represents both a departure for the artist from his earlier works and a great advance in his integration of narrative subject matter and landscape form. The origins of the painting can be traced to Turner’s visit to the Continent in the summer of 1802. While in Paris he saw Titian’s masterpiece, the Death of St Peter Martyr, which had been looted by Napoleon from the Venetian church of SS Giovanni e Paolo. The painting (which was destroyed by fire after its restitution to Venice) greatly moved Turner, who took three pages of notes on it in his “Studies in the Louvre” sketchbook. He later discussed the painting, together with two other paintings by Titian in British private collections, Diana and Actaeon and Venus and Cupid with a Lute-player, in his celebrated “Backgrounds” lecture of 1811. It is clear that all three paintings were much in his mind as he composed the Venus and Adonis.

Turner’s painting both pays homage to Titian and expands upon the grand tradition of Venetian mythological painting. The subject, a theme from Ovid also treated by Titian in one of his most celebrated compositions, represents Adonis, the handsome mortal lover of the goddess Venus, as he sets out on a hunt. Having gathered his dogs, he holds a spear in one hand and gestures with the other to the nude Venus, who is reclining on her bed, set in a lush, garden-like alcove in a forest grove. Venus had cautioned Adonis about the dangers of hunting wild animals, and his departure for this ill-fated hunt would indeed prove tragic, as he was to be killed by a boar through the cruel plot of the vengeful goddess Juno. To change Adonis’s destiny, however, even the charms of Venus are insufficient. All her loving appeals to keep him by her side fail, as one of the cupids tries in vain to restrain the great hunter by holding fast to his sandal. The poignant interplay of the figures is mirrored by the expressive landscape with its mighty trees populated by floating cupids, a flower-strewn bower, and the rich, cascading silks of the goddess’s bed. The subject is at once an innovative interpretation of the classical myth of love and loss, an allegory of the very different roles of man and woman, and, as has recently been suggested, a personification of seasonal change. The universality of the theme is underscored by Turner’s studied organization of the figures, in which gestures carry the meaning, even while the faces of the protagonists are not visible to the viewer.

A study for Venus and Adonis appears in Turner’s Calais Pier sketchbook (LXXXI, page 50) and is inscribed by the artist Parting of Venus and Adonis. It differs from the finished composition in that Venus is there depicted upright.

While dated as late as 1806-10 by Armstrong, the painting is placed by most critics in the years 1803-5. It may have first been exhibited in Turner’s own gallery, which he opened on Harley Street in London in 1804. Purchased by John Green of Blackheath (who also had acquired Turner’s Bonneville, exhibited in 1803), the painting passed in 1830 to the collection of Baron Munro of Novar, who exhibited it at the Royal Academy in 1849. It was then that the work was first seen by a wide audience and the critical response was enthusiastic and notable. The Art Union (June 1849) described it as a work that will bear comparison with the best of its class that ever emanated from the Venetian School. The Athenaeum (May 12, 1849) wrote the mythological theme, which, having been re-painted by Titian and sung by Shakespeare, has lost none of its beauty on Mr Turner's canvas… The little cupids loosening the sandal of Adonis is a suggestion as significant as pages of words could express. The Illustrated London News (May 26, 1849) remarked that it wears the look, certainly, as if it belonged to the National Gallery.