Tuesday, November 30, 2021

George Villiers as Adonis

The Marquess (later Duke) of Buckingham and his wife

 George Villiers, Marquess of Buckingham, favorite of James I, had himself and his wife Katherine painted as Adonis and Venus. The partial nudity of English courtiers may seem odd, even by the standards of the era, but it must be remembered that Rubens had similarly painted Henri IV of France and Marie de' Medici at about the same time. The seventeenth century loved everything classical and most works of art, even of religious subjects, involved some degree of nudity. Before the Puritans seized power in England, the body was not viewed as solely a source of sin and temptation but as God's creation, giving Him glory. It was not the nudity but the frame of reference. A painting of fully-clothed people could be lascivious, depending on the circumstances, while one with naked people might be quite innocent. From Apollo:

In the Metamophoses, Ovid tells of how Venus, accidentally pierced by Cupid’s arrow, falls desperately in love with the beautiful Adonis. Adonis is a great hunter and, despite Venus’s pleadings with him to stay with her, he goes out to hunt and is killed by a boar. It is easy to see why the narrative might have appealed to Villiers: a handsome, athletic youth is adored by the goddess of love, who is here transposed into Katherine Manners, one of the most sought-after matches in England. Yet Ovid’s Adonis, while not immune to Venus’s charms, is desperate to return to the hunt (and thus hastens his own death). By contrast, Adonis/Villiers is doting on his love, staring adoringly at her with his arm wrapped around her shoulder. In Van Dyck’s painting only the hunting dog seems impatient to return to the field.

The dog’s posture links this painting back to Van Dyck’s other treatment of this story (now in a private collection in Madrid), in which he recounts the more conventional narrative. Drawing on earlier depictions by Titian and Rubens, Van Dyck shows Venus clinging to Adonis, begging him not to go. But while there are marked parallels in composition between the two works – the placement of a tree to the right of Venus, the ‘attire’ of the figures, and the identical (and distinctly baroque) dogs – the two figures of the later work are a radical reinterpretation of the story. Venus’s desperate gaze is replaced by Manners’ poised certitude, and Adonis’s impatience becomes Villiers’ lingering embrace.

Like the mythical youth, Villiers was also struck down in his prime – killed not by the wild boar he hunted, but by one of the many enemies he had accrued as the flamboyant favourite of two kings. His influence on English painting, however, is undeniable: Van Dyck returned to become court painter in 1630 and, under Villiers’ tutelage, Charles I assembled one of the great art collections, part of which was reconstructed for public view in the Royal Academy’s exhibition earlier this year. (Read more.)

Marie de' Medici and Henri IV as Juno and Jupiter


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