This previously unpublished picture is one of Boucher's earliest history paintings. A work of vigor and ambition, probably painted while the artist was still in his teens, it is an addition to the growing corpus of rediscovered works that help 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 episode for European artists, but the moment depicted by Boucher -- the imploring goddess rebuffed by the doomed boy as he departs for the hunt which will claim his life -- is not recounted by Ovid. Like Titian, Rubens, and Poussin, before him, Boucher invented the moving scene of the lovers' parting that the Metamorphoses had failed to provide.
In Ovid's tale, the story of Venus and Adonis is recounted by Orpheus to an audience of animals and birds (Book X, lines 532-59). Child of the 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 even from 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 after 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 other savage things which do not turn their backs in flight, but offer their breasts 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 would not brook advice....'
In Boucher's painting, as in most other depictions of the episode, Venus remains with Adonis, imploring him not to leave; since he is determined to hunt, one putto hands him his spear, while another offers up a horn. Venus will soon hear his dying groans, and on the ground where Adonis' blood flowed, sweet-smelling anemonies will bloom.
Boucher's Venus and Adonis bears strong similarities to several of the artist's earliest known paintings, as Alastair Laing and Colin Bailey have noted: in particular, the putti are nearly identical in type and handling to putti in two paintings from the 1720s, The Death of Adonis (A. Ananoff, François Boucher, 1976, p. 176, no. 39) and Selene and Endymion (ibid., no. 36; formerly Maurice Segoura, Paris), the latter itself a recent discovery.
The handling of the Venus and Adonis is very close to that of Boucher's master, François Lemoyne, although Boucher's palette is warmer than the pale, limpid tonalities typical of the elder painter and evident in Lemoyne's own great rendition of the subject (1729; Nationalmuseum, Stockholm). Boucher's picture reveals other influences as well. Its sparkling lighting and robust application of paint also 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 him to Watteau) and upon whom full membership in the French Académie was conferred in December 1720. Although it is impossible 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 (c. mid-1720s; Musée du Louvre, Paris) was believed to be by Ricci himself.
The Venus and Adonis seems to have come down paired with another recently discovered painting by Boucher, a splendid Judgement of Susannah, which has been recently acquired by the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Both are of the same unusual low, wide format, and of comparable dimensions (the Susannah measures 82.5 x 145.2cm.). The Susannah, which is signed, was referred to in an obituary of Boucher published in the Galerie Françoise in 1771, in which the anonymous author stated that Boucher had made the painting when he was just 17 years of age, and that it 'drew praise from Lemoyne, who felt that a great future lay in store for him'. Whether or not the Susannah and Venus and Adonis were conceived as pendants -- and it must be acknowledged that they make a somewhat awkward pair -- they must both date from the early 1720s, well before Boucher's departure for Rome in 1728, when he had not yet forged the characteristic idiom of his maturity and was still experimenting with diverse styles.
We are grateful to Mr. Alastair Laing and Dr. Colin B. Bailey for their help in preparing this entry.