Venus Mourning the Death of Adonis
Oil on panel, 1646, by Bartholomeus Breenbergh (1598 – 1657)
Reclining Male Nude
Oiled charcoal and white chalk on blue antique laid paper, 1646, by Bartholomeus Breenbergh (1598 – 1657)
Relatively little is known about the early life of the artist Bartholomeus Breenbergh. He did rise to become one of the preeminent painters of the Dutch Golden Age and by 1630 was esteemed enough to be given a lucrative annual stipend by King Charles I of Britain. He specialized in depicting Italiante landscapes after living in Rome between 1619 and 1630, of which his study of Adonis is a typical example.
Contrastingly, we do know a great deal more about the life of the subject of this painting even if he was only ever a myth to begin with. Adonis represents the archetype of stunning male beauty and aesthetically he stands as the epitome of a beautiful male youth. However as such he also represents the allegorical fate of beauty doomed because, as the scholar Germaine Greer suggests, “as boyhood is but a preparatory phase in the emergence of man, the archetypal boy cannot survive.” Classical literature is littered with prototypes of youths who do not survive to full manhood whether it is Orpheus dismembered by the Maenads, Hyacinthus brained by a discus, Antionous swallowed up by the Nile, Leander drowned in the Hellespont, Sebastian struck full of arrows, or, here, Adonis gored by a wild boar. Nostalgia aside, sociologically we have no use for lapsed boyhood: boyhood itself is a terminal state. It is venerated life in headlong pursuit of lamented death: the boy “dies” when the man is “born” and with his demise his beauty fades. As if to remind us of the ever prescient fragility of male beauty we have the tragedies of modern heroes such as James Dean, Jean-Michel Basquiat, River Phoenix and Heath Ledger as exemplars. Like Apollo and Dionysos, they have not been allowed to outgrow their dazzling boyhood.
However, there is an interesting inversion of the entire death legacy in art because, illogically, to depict death in illustration is also to resurrect life in imagination. Here, as in every other example, Adonis is captured both in death but simultaneously in life as well: it is the artistic equivalent of Schrödinger's cat paradox. His beauty which dies with his mortality therefore becomes beauty which lives on immortally: the captured figure cannot decompose; the body cannot fade. As such, in art, we are able to denote what anthropologists forever argue about: Adonis, like Christ, will forever be regarded as a “dying-and-rising deity” beyond the mere etiological metaphor of the anemone flower whose cyclical nature the tears of Venus mixed with Adonis’ blood is said to have created.
There are some curious ‘problems’ with Breenbergh’s interpretation, especially when viewed in a more modern context. First is the weirdly unflattering depiction of Venus. High art has always taken pains to adulate and beautify Venus (or Aphrodite) particularly: just evidence Praxiteles staggeringly iconic Venus de Milo or Titian’s evocative Venus Reclining (but the list is essentially endless). Here, Breenbergh presents her with the flattened profile of a hag replete with a plump neck and a less than classically feminine body. Her breasts pierce the torso of Adonis as she cradles him. The arrangement of her hair, which is highlighted for us with a decoration of pearls, casts her in a matronly as opposed to amorous tone: the contrast to the free-flowing locks of another Titian Venus, Venus Anadyomene, or Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, which are both so lusciously and erotically signalled, could not be more striking. Here the pair are at the edge of a forest which may be an allusion to Adonis’ maternal origins associated with Myrrha and hints at Oedipal overtones to which Venus is marked in conspiracy. To complete this saturation of suggestiveness, her swan-drawn chariot echoes the rape of Leda by Zeus while the miscreant Cupid, here portrayed in the naïve Hellenistic fashion as opposed to the sexually aware Augustan form we see in Caravaggio’s Amor Vincit Omina or Lysippos’ Amor Stringing His Bow, is averting his eyes ostensibly to hide his tears of grief but also to ‘un-see’ the predations which Breenbergh’s scene seems to invoke.
Indeed, it becomes clear this is not Ovid’s romanticised tale of Venus and Adonis as we find in the Metamorphoses but more akin to the tale of predatory seizure we find in Shakespeare’s verse version of 1593. In Venus and Adonis Shakespeare’s conceit rests in the inversion of conventional male-female centred seduction tropes and depicts Adonis as the focus of reluctant male love: the young huntsman himself becomes the quarry and not the pursuer. In fact, at one point Venus drags Adonis off his horse and presses home her advantage as she has him in her clasp:
Under her other [arm] was the tender boy,
Who blushed and pouted in dull disdain,
With leaden appetite, unapt to toy:
She red and hot as coals of glowing fire.
He red for shame, but frosty in desire.
In the context of the modern #MeToo age, it is interesting to consider that this theme has preoccupied art and literature throughout history and that often it was older women who were cast as predators towards beautiful youths. More common, it was other women who laid this claim: the Victorian era was full of obsessive mothers and aunts paranoid of the threat posed to their sons by aggressive women who were seen to entrap desirable young bachelors into forced marriages with pregnancy or lure them by promises of a full sexual education way before the age of films such as The Graduate or Le petit amour. Prostitutes and intrigantes were vilified for the threat of venereal disease they passed on to boys seeking to ‘sow their wild oats’ and Breenbergh’s suffocating atmosphere seems to seethe with all manner of dark and turbulent issues over the exact nature of reciprocation between the two fabled ‘lovers.’
Observe how Adonis’ right leg is instinctively bent inwards as if he uses it to shield his modesty from Venus’ gaze even as he lies dying. In the boar attack his clothes have been stripped off leaving him naked except that he has managed to cover his genitals in one last gesture of defiance whereas the real life study Breenbergh made for his Adonis figure (also in the Fogg collection) was fully naked. Adonis is also seen shod which again marks a divergence from the study and it adds a sense of prudish infantilism to his mystique. A further telling metaphor of unrequited passion is suggested by the curved aspect of the bugle which lies a few feet away and is entwined with other pieces of flaccid fabric thus denoting unaroused sexual passivity while the more strident phallic emblem of the spear lies discarded and unused: the boar gored him before he could pierce it. A final hint rests with the positioning of the mortal wound: Breenbergh’s Adonis is punctured in the lower part of his stomach whereas traditionally Adonis was struck directly in the groin, another marker of his sexualised classical persona which is here nullified.
It is equally possible that Breenbergh’s treatment of the myth plays into themes of the fetishization of youthful male fantasies by submission to the domination of masterful females. This particular episode in the Venus-Adonis story conveys the much repeated trope of the injured boy being tended by the provocative nurse-figure which in itself again echoes the complicated psychology of the Oedipal or maternal love object. However, even this possibility Breenbergh seems to dilute. Indeed, the skin tone of Adonis is as pale as a babe’s, while Venus is markedly more tanned and shows signs of exposure to the elements and therefore to earthly experience. The nude study displays the strident physique of youth adulated - reclined and presentable and erotic - whereas in the final presentation, Adonis loses something of his virility as he is coddled and emasculated by Venus who in these final moments betrays him by becoming a mother and not a lover.
Finally, pathos and shock are captured powerfully by the inclusion of Adonis’ loyal hounds. The black dog represents death realised – he has already curled up, accepting of his master’s fate. The white dog represents the transience of life and the reality of mortality – he still stands bewildered by the suddenness of the attack, he looks out into the distance protectively for his master even though the act is now in vain. Like Cupid and both swans, their eyes are averted from the awkward last coupling of the two lovers.
Images courtesy of the Fogg Museum, Harvard University.