This deeply moving depiction of the sorrowful tale of Venus and Adonis is a rare mythological painting by the Avignon master, Nicolas Mignard. In Book X of the Metamorphosis, Ovid recounts the story of the goddess of Love and her passion for the beautiful youth, Adonis, who spent his days hunting. Although Venus warned Adonis about the dangers of wild boars and lions, he ignored her entreaties and chose instead to follow his hounds, which roused a wild boar from its lair. The boar mortally wounded Adonis, and Venus, returning to Cyprus in her swan-drawn carriage to tend the dying youth, sprinkled nectar over his blood, which brought forth sweet-smelling anemones, the flower so fragile that its petals are shaken off by the wind, and whose beauty, like Adonis's, is of brief duration.
Long attributed to Poussin, the present painting was first given to Mignard by Anthony Blunt, an attribution definitively endorsed by Antoine Schnapper in 1981. The painting has a tragic gravity worthy of Poussin, with poignant, beautifully observed details such as the weeping cupid and the hound that licks his master's leg in a vain attempt to revive him. However, the marmoreal flesh tones, and solid construction of the composition based on dramatic contrasts of light and shadow are characteristic of Mignard's mature works. Schnapper drew attention to the similarities between the background of Venus and Adonis and that of the Virgin and Child by Mignard, a picture that is dated 1653 (private collection, Munich; sold Parke-Bernet, New York, 2 December 1976, lot 207). Even more apparent is the association between the present painting and the Pieta of 1655 (Musée Calvet, Avignon), in which Mary Magdalen grieving over the body of the dead Christ almost precisely replicates the poses of Venus and Adonis; a dating of circa 1655 is most likely for the present painting as well.