Boucher painted several depictions of episodes from the story of Venus and Adonis in the 1720s. The Death of Adonis is a work of vigor and ambition, probably painted when the artist was still in his early twenties. It is an addition to the corpus of works that helps scholars better understand what Pierre Rosenberg has called ‘the mysterious beginnings of the young Boucher.’
The story of Venus’ passion for the beautiful young Adonis was a favorite subject for European artists. In Ovid’s tale, the tragedy of Venus and Adonis is recounted by Orpheus to an audience of animals and birds (Metamorphoses, Book X, lines 532-860). Child of an incestuous union of King Cinyras of Paphos and his daughter Myrrha, Adonis was renowned from childhood for his unequalled beauty. The Goddess of Love conceived an overwhelming passion for this mortal following a chance scratch she received from Cupid’s arrow. Soon, she was to stay ‘away from even the skies,’ Ovid tells us. ‘Adonis is preferred to heaven. She holds him fast, is his companion and, though her want has always been to take her ease in the shade, and to enhance her beauty by fostering it, now, over the mountain ridges, through the woods over rocky places set with thorns, she ranges with her garments girt up to her knees in the manner of Diana…She warns you too, Adonis, to fear these beasts, if only it were of any avail to warn…These beasts, and with them all savage things which do not turn their backs in flight, but offer their beasts to battle, do you, for my sake, dear boy, avoid, lest your manly courage be the ruin of us both.’ Venus then departs in her swan-drawn chariot. ‘But the boy’s manly courage,’ Ovid observes, ‘would not brook advice…’
Adonis ignored the pleas and warnings of Venus 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 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’, is of brief duration.
In Boucher’s sparkling but heartfelt rendering of the subject, a grieving Venus descends on a cloud to mourn her dying lover, her swan-drawn chariot behind her. On the ground, Adonis is sprawled on his back clutching the quiver of arrows which failed to save him from the boar’s savage assault. A weeping Cupid comforts the youth as his loyal hounds gently approach their master’s battered body.
Boucher’s Death of Adonis bears strong similarities to several of the artist’s earliest known paintings; in particular, the Cupid is nearly identical in type and handling to putti in three of his paintings from the 1720s: his horizontal rendering of the same subject (see Ananoff, op. cit., 1976, no. 39) and its pendant, The Birth of Adonis (see Ananoff, op. cit., no. 38), as well as his depiction of The Parting of Venus and Adonis (fig. 1; sold Christie’s, New York, 21 October 1997, lot 58).
The handling of The Death of Adonis is very close to the manner of Boucher’s master, François Lemoyne (1688-1737), and its pale and limpid tonalities are similar to the soft, bright palette typical of the elder painter and evident in Lemoyne’s own great rendition of the story of Venus and Adonis of 1729 (Nationalmuseum, Stockholm). Boucher’s picture reveals other influences as well. Its glistening lighting and robust application of paint evoke qualities of facture and gesture found in the works of Sebastiano Ricci, who had visited Paris in December 1716 (when his host, Pierre Crozat, had introduced the Venetian painter to Watteau), and upon whom full membership in the French Academy was conferred in December 1720. Although it is not possible to document Boucher’s acquaintance with specific works by Ricci, a familiarity cannot be doubted; until it was recognized in 1978 as the work of Boucher, The Sacrifice of Gideon (Musée du Louvre), a painting from the mid-1720s, was believed to be by Ricci himself.
The Death of Adonis can be quite precisely dated due to the curious history of its creation. The catalogues of several eighteenth-century sales indicate that Boucher painted his picture as a pendant to a depiction of Mars and Venus by the history painter Carle Vanloo (1705-1765), a painting that is today in the Blaffer Foundation at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (fig. 2). In the Verrier sale held on 18 November 1776, Boucher’s painting was described as ‘one of the most beautiful by this Master. It is a harmonious pendant to the preceding lot [Carle Vanloo, Mars et Venus sur des nuages accompagnés de l’Amour] and depicts Venus finding the body of Adonis, and displaying her sorrow. Cupid moans with her: this subject is rendered with real poetry. The two paintings are engraved by Le Vasseur.’ Confirming that the present painting was the picture in the Verrier collection is Gabriel de Saint-Aubin’s tiny marginal illustration of it in his copy of the sale catalogue (fig. 3). This pendant pair were again sold together in an anonymous sale in April 1784. As the Verrier catalogue alludes, engravings of the pair of paintings by Jean Charles Le Vasseur were exhibited in the Salon of 1775; an earlier engraving of Boucher’s picture was made by Louis Surugue in 1742.
Although Boucher’s painting is not dated, Michel François Dandré-Bardon, in an address before the Académie Royale on the ‘Life of Carle Vanloo’ delivered in 1765, identified Vanloo’s Mars and Venus as having been painted in 1726. It seems reasonable to conclude that Boucher’s pendant would have been executed at around the same time, and the style of the painting accords with a dating from the mid-1720s, shortly before Boucher departed for Italy in 1728 to take up his Prix de Rome. It should not be surprising that Boucher and Vanloo, only two years his senior, worked together on the same commission, as the two men were close companions in their youth. In 1728, they traveled together to Rome to study at the Académie de France, and their works were sometimes confused. The director of the French Academy in Rome, Nicolas Vleughels, regarded the two as his most promising students. After Vanloo’s death in 1765, it was Boucher who was appointed to succeed him as Premier Peintre du Roi to Louis XV.