Early in his career Poussin traveled to Italy and was introduced to a circle of important Roman patrons including the antiquarian Cassiano dal Pozzo. Poussin’s classicism, nurtured by his knowledge of antique literature and art, was warmed by his study of Venetian painting. Venus and Adonis reveals the influence of Titian in composition, coloration, and mood. The composition is built in a series of opposing diagonals, highlighting Venus’s shapely limbs and soft belly and casting the lovers into shadow, foreboding Adonis’s imminent doom.
According to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Venus and her mortal lover Adonis sought the shade of a poplar tree during an interlude from the hunt. The goddess mingled kisses and words, telling Adonis why she forbade him to pursue dangerous, wild animals—her mortal enemies. The lovers are attended by a host of putti who prepare Venus’s golden chariot. A pair of reclining putti, along with a couple of billing doves, mimic the lovers’ postures. Lance in hand and helical horn and dog nearby, Adonis is ready to disobey Venus and heed the call of the hunt. The tragic outcome––for Adonis is killed by a wild boar––is foreshadowed in the sleeping putto, unattended torch, and menacing clouds. Adonis wears a wreath of anemones, the flower that Venus would create in his memory by sprinkling his blood with nectar.