J.M.W. Turner: Sketchbooks, Drawings and Watercolours

ISBN 978-1-84976-386-8

Joseph Mallord William Turner Composition Study for 'Venus and Adonis' c.1802-5

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Folio 26 Verso:
Composition Study for ‘Venus and Adonis’ c.1802–5
Turner Bequest LXXXI 50
Black and white chalks on blue laid paper, 436 x 271 mm
Watermarks ‘1794’ and Strasburg lily
Inscribed by Turner in ink ‘Parting of Venus | and Adonis’ towards bottom centre, ascending vertically
Inscribed in pencil ‘50’ top right, upside down
Stamped in black ‘LXXXI–50’ top right, upside down
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
This study is inverted relative to the sketchbook’s foliation, and framed by a black chalk border. Although he was to exhibit it only in retrospect at the Royal Academy in 1849, Venus and Adonis (‘Adonis Departing for the Chase’) of about 1803–4 (private collection)1 is one of the most ambitious of the paintings imitating Titian (active about 1506–died 1576) on which Turner embarked following his visit to Paris in 1802. He saw there, among the masterpieces assembled by Napoleon in the Louvre, Titian’s Death of Peter Martyr, which had been taken from the church of SS Giovanni and Paolo in Venice (destroyed by fire in the nineteenth century). The picture made a considerable impact on him, and he recorded the experience in notes in the Studies in the Louvre sketchbook (Tate D04306–D04308; Turner Bequest LXXII 27a–28, 28a); he was struck by the composition, which he thought ‘beyond all system’ in its combination of historical figures with a landscape that, he said, ‘tho natural is heroic’.
The use of landscape as a setting for the grandest history painting bore directly on Turner’s own preoccupations as a landscape painter determined to elevate his subject to the highest levels of importance in the hierarchy of the arts. He applied Titian’s general plan to two subjects, one sacred, one profane: a Holy Family and a scene from the story of Venus and Adonis. In the Calais Pier sketchbook we see him trying out two of each type. The Holy Family appears both in the scene of the Adoration of the Shepherds (see folios 17 verso and 23 verso; D04935, D04946; Turner Bequest LXXXI 34, 44) and on the Flight into Egypt (see folios 31 verso and 33 recto; D04962, D04965; Turner Bequest LXXXI 60, 63).
The Adonis subject was to be either the Death of Adonis (see folio 27 verso; D04954; Turner Bequest LXXXI 52) or the parting of Venus and Adonis (see folio 26 verso; D04952; Turner Bequest LXXXI 50). John Gage suggests that one was to form a sequel to the other;2 given the other uses for the Titian that he had in mind, it is perhaps more likely that Turner entertained the two subjects as alternatives. Gage also says that the compositional idea sketched on this page ‘did not derive from the Titian’,3 but it is clearly the case that it did.
In the event, neither the Adoration subject nor the ‘Death of Adonis’ was realised, though the other two were, while a small oil sketch of Venus and the Dead Adonis survives (Tate N05493).4 The Holy Family appeared at the Royal Academy in 1803 (Tate N00473),5 but shorn of the distinctive tall trees with floating putti that so appealed to Turner in the Titian. These however were retained in his painted treatment of Venus and Adonis. In the present sketch, the trees receive most of Turner’s attention, and the body of Adonis is only suggested, though its pose seems to be based on that of the male nude studied on folio 16 recto (D04932; Turner Bequest LXXXI 31); see also the studies on folios 11 recto and 12 recto (D04922, D04924; Turner Bequest LXXXI 21, 23). On folio 27 verso (D04954; Turner Bequest LXXXI 52) the whole design is more clearly seen, with Venus mourning the young man beneath lofty tree stems while putti float and clamber among the bushes and branches.
Turner followed the drawing on this page fairly closely when he executed his large canvas of Venus and Adonis; the most significant modification being the pose of Venus herself, who is here standing but in the picture lies on a draped bank under the trees. The most curious feature of the finished work, her completely hidden face, is already an element in this study.

Andrew Wilton
May 2013

Butlin and Joll 1984, pp.113–15 no.150, pl.49 (colour).
See Gage 1969, p.141.
Butlin and Joll 1984, p.115 no.151, pl.157.
Ibid., pp.38–9 no.49, pl.60.

How to cite

Andrew Wilton, ‘Composition Study for ‘Venus and Adonis’ c.1802–5 by Joseph Mallord William Turner’, catalogue entry, May 2013, in David Blayney Brown (ed.), J.M.W. Turner: Sketchbooks, Drawings and Watercolours, Tate Research Publication, April 2016, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/jmw-turner/joseph-mallord-william-turner-composition-study-for-venus-and-adonis-r1178156, accessed 29 November 2021.