Jacopo Amigoni had spent his early career in Venice, but following the example of older Venetian painters such as Gian Antonio Pellegrini, he left the city to make a name for himself as an international artist. He quickly found an avid audience in the various courts of Europe which had developed a taste for the charm of the Venetian Rococo. In 1730, Amigoni arrived in London fresh from a series of pictorial triumphs in Venice, Rome and at the court of the Elector of Bavaria, and soon had eager patrons amongst the English nobility and even royalty.1 Although he appears to have been chiefly occupied with portrait commissions, his mythological paintings, such as the present picture, are amongst his most admired work from this period. Of the few decorative pieces in this genre he executed whilst in England most are still in situ in the houses for which they were commissioned. Perhaps the most notable example of this is the series of four canvases depicting episodes from the story of Jupiter and Io commissioned by Benjamin Hoskins Styles for his house Moor Park in Hertfordshire (see fig. 2).2
It is the similarities which the present work, and its aforementioned pendant, share with this set and particularly with the canvas from the Moor Park series portraying Jupiter and Io themselves, that have led scholars to date the Brownsover Hall paintings to the same period.3 All three paintings have a similar compositional arrangement in which the two lovers are physically intertwined in the centre, dressed in brightly colored swathes of material. Amigoni uses compositional elements that act as a framing device for his protagonists which occupy just over half of these canvases, the rest being filled by a vibrant sky whilst scattered winged putti look on from the periphery of the composition. In the present work, the framing of the figures is provided by a leafy tree stump, whilst in the Metropolitan Flora and Zephyr it is a half ruined wall, and in the Moor Park painting it is a piece of material draped from a tree. The similarities between the Brownsover Hall pair and the Moor park painting are not just compositional. All three also share a tender overall tone: Amigoni has moved away from using an overtly baroque idiom to describe the narrative and instead focuses on the feelings between the two protagonists. All three canvases are handled in a light, fluid, finished fashion with an underlying sense of classicism.
This was not Amigoni's only treatment of the narrative of Adonis taking leave of Venus. The subject, as with Jupiter and Io, is taken from Ovid's Metamorphoses and describes how the goddess Venus implored Adonis not to leave her to go off on a hunting trip during which he is gored by a wild boar and dies. In another, earlier, horizontal canvas in the Accademia, Venice, Amigoni has interpreted the narrative in a very different light. Adonis seems much more eager to depart from his lover and looks at her with an almost impatient gaze as he tears himself from her embrace.4 During his English period Amigoni painted another version of Venus and Adonis, again in a horizontal format, but here Adonis leaves for hunting whilst Venus is asleep so there is a more languid poignant feel to the image and none of the gentle emotion of the present work.5
It is through looking at Amigoni's other treatments of the subject and other paintings from his English period such as the Moor Park set, that one comes to fully appreciate the subtleties of thought and execution Amigoni put into the present work. By using emotion rather than drama to define the narrative, he has created his most tender and beguiling depiction of the myth. His use of soft contours and bright colors articulated with a delicate yet painterly touch, means the overall impression is light-hearted and graceful and one is fully able to understand why he was one of the foremost and highly sought after decorative artists of his generation.
Note on Provenance
Although the early history of this large painting and its pendant are still unknown, their style and dating suggest they were commissioned to decorate an, as yet, unidentified English country house. They appear to be the pair of paintings offered by 'Harding' in London sales in 1804/5 (see Provenance); in the first of the two sales (left unsold), they were described as 'Adonis going to the Chace [sic]' and 'Its Companion' with no sizes. However, when the two pictures were reoffered in 1805, they were more precisely identified as 'Venus and Adonis' and 'Flora and Zephyr'. More compelling are the annotations in a copy of the 1805 sale preserved at the Gardner Museum, Boston, which gives the approximate size of the pictures at 'about 6 feet by 4' (the present pair are approximately 7 by 5 feet, close enough to suggest that they are likely identical). At that sale, those paintings were acquired by Charles Hanbury Tracy, later 1st Baron Sudeley, who was in the process of redesigning his house, Toddington Manor, in Gloucestershire in the Neo-Gothic style. Sudeley was an active buyer in the London sale rooms in the first two decades of the nineteenth century. The impressive collection he built up hung at Toddington Manor throughout the century until the 1880s when his grandson Charles Douglas Richard Hanbury-Tracy, the 4th Baron Sudeley, ran into financial difficulties and began to sell off the paintings in a variety of anonymous sales. Less clear, however, is a reference to a 4 July 1835 auction, at Christie's, London (lots 98–99), where a pair of paintings of these subjects, but with no size, were offered (but where their description as 'gallery pictures' would indicate a large format). It has not been possible to determine how the present painting and its pendant passed into the ownership of the Ward-Boughton-Leigh family (the first certain documented owners of the paintings) at Brownsover Manor, where they hung prior to the sale of the Hall in the mid-twentieth century.
1. See for example his portraits of Frederick, Prince of Wales in the National Gallery, London and of Queen Caroline in the National Portrait Gallery, London; Scarpa Sonino 1994, pp. 33–34, reproduced.
2. See J.B Shipley, 'Ralph, Ellys, Hogarth, and Fielding: The Cabal Against Jacopo Amigoni' in Eighteenth-Century Studies, vol. I, 1968, pp. 321–24, reproduced figs 1–4.
3. Scarpa Sonino 1994, p. 82.
4. See Scarpa Sonino 1994, p. 58, reproduced fig. 28.
5. See Scarpa Sonino 1994, pp. 114–15, reproduced plate 24. This format is also adopted by Amigoni for his depiction of the subject in the Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen in Munich; Scarpa Sonino 1994, pp. 120–21, reproduced plate 27.
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