Born in ‘S-Gravendeel around 1610, Jacob Frans van der Merck worked in Delft, The Hague and Leiden, producing portraits, genre scenes, and still lifes in the Flemish manner. His great talent is evident in this monumental portrait historiae, which presents the artist’s patrons as Venus and Adonis. In Ovid's account, Venus falls in love with the mortal Adonis, a hunter. Foreseeing Adonis’s death while on the hunt, Venus tries to deter him with her sensual charm, but to no avail. Adonis pursues a boar, and is gored to death. The subject of Venus and Adonis became popular in the Netherlands at the end of 16th century, prompted in part by a series of illustrations of the Metamorphoses executed by Hendrick Goltzius in 1588, which made these mythological subjects accessible to a wider audience. However, by the time Van der Merck painted the present work, life-sized portraiture had fallen out of favor in the Netherlands. Although the identity of the sitters is unknown, the impressive format of the canvas suggests a commission by patrons of great wealth and status.
The present work depicts the most powerful moment of Ovid’s story, Venus and Adonis’ final parting. Diverging from his predecessors, Van der Merck lends a sense of restraint and elegance to a subject that was usually marked by its sensuality. Unlike the amorous nudes of Titian and Rubens, here the figures appear in elegant dress and with placid expressions that belie the tragic ending of the myth. The gentleman has a firm stance, reminiscent of a classical pose. The lady leans gently towards her husband, clasping him by his belt and pleading with him not to leave on the hunt. The wife’s gesture is answered by the husband, whose outstretched arm points in his intended direction. A Cupid and a putto attempt to help delay the gentleman, while a fifth figure (possibly the couple’s daughter) holds a turtledove, a sign of love, faithfulness, and peace.