In the Greek myth the mortal Adonis was so beautiful that the goddess Venus developed a helpless passion for him. One day, while out hunting, Adonis threw a spear at a wild boar but only succeeded in wounding the animal. The beast chased him and killed him; although Venus rushed to his aid she was too late to help. The myth draws attention to the fleeting nature of physical beauty and earthly life.
Lambert depicted this scene just after Adonis had been killed, with his lifeless body sprawled on the ground, his hunting dogs at his feet and a stricken boar behind him. He painted it in Paris, at the same time as Hugh Ramsay made a version of the subject, Venus and Adonis c.1901 (Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery, Launceston). Both artists used a frieze-like format, a subdued tonal range, flat areas of paint and a simplified structure. In this, and in their adoption of a mythological subject, they were influenced by the French symbolist painter, Puvis de Chavannes.
An Italian, Michelangelo Bastianelli, was the model for Adonis, and a local butcher lent his boar hound as a model for the dogs.
The tale of Venus and Adonis comes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses . Shakespeare developed the story into an epic of sexual love, Milton alluded to it in his poem Comus , and William Morris in Atalanta’s Race . The story attracted artists as well as poets, including Titian, Rubens and Poussin, and the English Pre-Raphaelite painter John William Waterhouse. The pose of Adonis in Lambert’s painting, lying with his head and shoulders raised, resting on his right arm and with his right leg bent, is similar to that of the Adonis in Sebastiano del Piombo’s Death of Adonis 1501 (Uffizi, Florence).