Rubens, Venus, and Adonis | Anatomy of a Tragedy

The Israel Museum, Jerusalem

The Israel Museum, Jerusalem

Peter Paul Rubens, Flemish, 1577-1640
The Death of Adonis, ca. 1614
Oil on canvas,
212x325 cm
Gift of Saul P. and Gayfryd Steinberg, New York
To American Friends of the Israel Museum

Curator: Shlomit Steinberg, Hans Dichand Curator of European Art

The first in a series of exhibitions focusing on a single masterpiece from the Israel Museum collection, this exhibition is devoted to The Death of Adonis, painted around 1614 by the Flemish Baroque master Sir Peter Paul Rubens. Displayed alongside this magnificent piece are sketches, drawings, prints, and sculptures that shed light on the fascinating process which led to its creation and uncover the visual and literary sources that made their mark on the artist. Also on view are works by some of Rubens's Italian and Flemish contemporaries and ricordo (documentary) drawings by his student Willem Panneels – all of which highlight the importance of Rubens and his work.

Few painters lived such a good, fruitful, and rewarding life as Rubens. His large compositions, overflowing with voluptuous women, chubby cupids, and mythological characters, were regarded as epitomizing the aesthetic ideals of the Low Countries in the 17th century. Even his own persona – a Homo Universalis combining painter, scholar, humanist, collector, diplomat, and landlord – embodied the very essence of the Baroque style.

Rubens's travels on royal missions to the courts of Italy and Spain exposed him to Renaissance painting, Classical sculpture, and Humanist literature, and acquainted him, later in life, with the work of two of the great artists of his own time: Caravaggio and Velázquez. The Death of Adonis represents the luscious style he developed after returning to Antwerp following a prolonged stay in Italy, and offers an excellent example of his work in the second decade of the 17th century.

The Death of Adonis depicts the tragic moment when Venus, goddess of Love and Beauty, discovers the body of her handsome human lover, Adonis, gored by a wild boar while hunting and left bleeding to death. Rubens's rendition of this mythological scene is based on two main sources: a text by the first-century BCE poet Bion of Smyrna – the Epitaph on Adonis – which focuses on the death of the young hunter and the goddess's lament, and the slightly later Metamorphoses by Ovid, which was well known to Rubens and his educated contemporaries and exerted a profound influence on Renaissance humanism and on Baroque culture.


Paulus Pontius, Flemish, 1603—1658
Engraving after a self-portrait
By Peter Paul Rubens, 1630
The Israel Museum, Jerusalem

Provenance research

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