A depiction of lovers' tragic fate: Titian's Venus and Adonis sells for US$13.6m at Sotheby's

On 7 December, one of a few renditions of the celebrated Venus and Adonis painted by Titian and his workshop was put up for sale in an Old Masters Sale at Sotheby's London. Out of public sight for two centuries, it was billed as "the most important painting by the Venetian artist offered on the art market this century" by the house.

Highly-anticipated, the work sold for £11.2 million (US$13.6 million) against a low estimate of £8 million, matching the second highest price realised at auction for any work featuring Titian's hand. The artist's record now stands at US$16.9 million, set by A Sacra Conversazione when it was sold at Sotheby's New York in 2011.

Lot 6 | Tiziano Vecellio, called Titian, and workshop | Venus and Adonis, Oil on canvas
Created in Pieve di Cadore circa 1485/90 - 1576 Venice

177.2 x 199.2 cm

  • Prince Eugene of Savoy (1663–1736), in the Gallery (‘Bildersaal’), Upper Belvedere, Vienna, by at least 1720
  • Probably by inheritance to his niece Princess Maria Anna Victoria of Savoy-Carignan-Soissons (1683–1763)
  • By whom probably sold to Vittorio Amedeo of Savoy-Carignan (1690–1741)
  • Probably Prince de Carignan, posthumous sale, Paris, Hôtel de Soissons, 30 July 1742 and the following days, p. 26, lots unnumbered (as ‘Un Tableau de six pieds de haut, sur cinq pieds huit pouces de large, qui réprésente Venus & Adonis, par Titien.’ [with inverted dimensions here and in the subsequent two sales]), withdrawn (according to an annotation ‘retiré a 4500’)
  • Almost certainly reoffered, Prince de Carignan, posthumous sale, Paris, Hôtel de Soissons, 18 June 1743, p. 22, supplementary lot 3 (as ‘Un Tableau de six pieds de haut, sur cinq pieds huit pouces de large, qui représente Venus & Adonis, par Titien.’), for 4700 livres to Gaillard de Gagny
  • Possibly Emmanuel-Jacques Gaillard de Gagny (1703–1759), receveur général des finances de Grenoble
  • Possibly his estate sale (‘M. Gaillard de Gagny, Receveur Général des Finances de Grenoble’), Paris, Remy, 29 March 1762 and on the following days, lot 2 (as ‘Titien Vecelli/ Un Tableau peint sur toile, de 6 pieds de haut, sur 5 pieds 8 pouces de large, representant Vénus retenant Adonis qui part pour la chasse. Il est inutile de chercher à relever l’estime qu’on ne peut refuser à ce Tableau; sa réputation est connue depuis long-tems. Il a fait partie de la riche Collection du Prince de Carignan, & il est resté jusqu’à la vente qui fut faite après le décès de ce Prince.’), for 2400 livres to ‘Colins’
  • Possibly Michael Bryan (1757–1821), London
  • Possibly his sale (‘The Property of Mr. Bryan’), London, Coxe, Burrell and Foster, at Mr. Bryan’s Gallery in Pall Mall, 17–19 May 1798, Third Day’s Sale, lot 41 (as ‘Titian – Venus and Adonis. Titian has treated his favourite subject in this picture with unusual success. The design is grand and correct, and the expression of the heads most beautiful. It was brought to this country by a nobleman distinguished for taste, and is one of the finest pictures of this great master’), for £152–5s.
  • Benjamin West, P.R.A. (1738–1820), by 1803, if not earlier; by whom sold in 1809 for £4,000 to
  • Richard Hart Davis, M.P. (1766–1842) Bristol, who sold this and many other works in his collection to
  • Philip John Miles, M.P. (1774–1845), Leigh Court, near Bristol, probably by about 1816 and certainly by 1822
  • By inheritance to his son Sir William Miles, 1st Bt (1797–1878)
  • By inheritance to his grandson Sir Phillip Miles, 2nd Bt, M.P. (1825–1888)
  • His sale (‘Catalogue of the Leigh Court Gallery’), London, Christie’s, 28 June 1884, lot 68 (bought in at 1,680 guineas to ‘Phillips’)
  • By descent to his son Sir Cecil Miles, 3rd Bt (1873–1898)
  • By whose executors sold (‘The Property of Sir Cecil Miles, Bart., … Sold by Order of the Executors’), London, Christie’s, 13 May 1899, lot 29, for 420 guineas to Molyneux
  • Maximilian, Freiherr von Heyl zu Herrnsheim (1844–1925), Darmstadt, by whom stated to have been purchased on the advice of the painter Franz von Lenbach (d. 1904)
  • His posthumous sale, Hugo Helbing, Munich, 28–29 October 1930, lot 144, reproduced pl. VI (as Titian/Tizian), where unsold
  • The Estate of Doris von Heyl zu Herrnsheim, Darmstadt, until at least 16 June 1941 and latest 19 August 1941
  • When sold probably via Carl W. Buemming (1889–1963) to 
  • Philipp Fürchtegott Reemtsma (1893–1959), Landgut Puchhof, Bavaria, until 1945, and subsequently Hamburg and Landgut Trenthorst
  • By inheritance to his widow Gertrud Reemtsma (née Zülch) (1916–1996)
  • With Kunsthandel Edmund J. Kratz, Hamburg, 1984
  • From whom acquired on 31 January 1984 by Patrick de Charmant (d. 2010), Lausanne (by whom offered, ‘The Property of a Private Collector’, London, Christie’s, 10 July 1998, lot 62, as Titian and studio)
  • Thence by inheritance

Estimate: £8,000,000 - 12,000,000
Hammer Price: £9,500,000
Sold: £11,164,000 (US$13,608,916)

The scene of Venus and Adonis was taken from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. As the story in the classic text goes, Venus, the goddess of love, fell desperately in love with Adonis, a young mortal of exceptional beauty, after Cupid pricked her with one of his arrows by accident.

As Adonis set off to hunt, Venus cautioned him against the perils of chasing dangerous prey but to no avail. Ignoring the goddess’ warning, Adonis was fatally gored by a wild boar during the hunt. By the time Venus heard his cries for help and rushed from Olympus to his aid, it was already too late and she only found her lover bleeding to death.

In departure of the original text, Titian invents an episode in which Venus implores Adonis not to leave. The young hunter, however, is as impatient to depart as his baying hounds – it is he who eagerly leaves her.

Titian's composition stands out as the most fully-elaborate interpretations of Ovid’s narrative, the only extant example to include both the goddess in the sky and the scene of Adonis’ cruel fate in the background.

A Sacra Conversazione | Sold: US$16,882,500, Sotheby's New York, 2011

Venus and Adonis, 1554 | Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid

This composition is related to Titian’s celebrated picture of the same subject painted for Philip of Habsburg, Prince of Spain (1527 – 1598), later Philip II of Spain, now in the Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid. Comissioned from Philip, it was delivered to London in 1554, two months after his political marriage with Mary I of England – whose love story, ironically, was in tune with Titian’s depiction of Venus and Adonis.

When Mary first saw a portrait of Philip, she was instantly captivated by the young and handsome man. Despite controversies, Mary was determined to marry Philip, as she firmly defended, “My marriage is my own affair.” And yet, her love turned out to be an one-way romance.

Within months of the wedding, Mary began to suffer from pseudocyesis, or false pregnancy. When her high hope for an heir shattered on the estimated date of delivery, Philip departed from London and left for Belgium, leaving Mary alone. Heartbroken, she fell into deep depression, and her physical well-being deteriorated sharply as well. On the day of her death, her husband was, again, absent – and Mary died alone, without the loving spouse that she had longed for. 

Mary I of England, 1516-58 and Philip II of Spain, 1527-98 | National Maritime Museum, Greenwich

Venus and Adonis, 1550s | The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

As in the case with many Old Masters’ works today, there has been much debate about the degree of involvement such great artists had in individual works. Titian, like many of his contemporaries, led a workshop to assist him with his commissions.

After the first Venus and Adonis had been despatched to Philip, at least a dozen versions of the original canvas were produced; some are straightforward copies by his assistants, some bears clear evidence of the master’s hand.

Those surviving renditions with Titian’s direct involvement now hang in major museums, including the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles; the National Gallery, London; the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Venus and Adonis, about 1555 - 1560 | The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Details of the present lot 

Referring to a technical examination of the painting conducted in 2015 and published in 2019 by Dr. Thomas Dalla Costa, a specialist in Italian Renaissance Art, Sotheby’s attributed the work to “Titian and workshop” and suggested that the full extent of Titian’s direct involvement in both the composition and execution is argued by the presence of pentimenti and the introduction of new elements absent from other versions.

In the present work, the drapery, as well as the dove, are added over the figure and both doves appear to have been added later in the painting process. This idea of pairing the birds – so that one is stationary while the other flies away, mirroring Venus and Adonis – is unique to this version.

New research has also established an almost uninterrupted provenance that traces three hundred years from the beginning of the eighteenth century to the present day. According to the house, its former owners included Prince Eugene of Savoy, the great general and statesman of imperial Austria, and Benjamin West, President of the Royal Academy and King George III’s official history painter.

Other Highlight Lots:

Lot 30 | Giovanni Antonio Canal, called Canaletto | Venice, The Grand Canal, looking north-west, with the Palazzo Pesaro, Palazzo Foscarini, and the pinnacle of San Stae, to the left, with the Palazzo Vendramin-Calergi and San Marcuola, to the right, Oil on canvas
Created in Venice 1697 - 1768
59.7 x 94 cm

  • Painted for Henry Grey, 1st Duke of Kent and 2nd Baron Lucas of Crudwell (1671–1740), Wrest Park, Bedfordshire
  • His granddaughter and heiress, Jemima, Marchioness Grey and Baroness Lucas (1722–1797), wife of Philip Yorke, 2nd Earl of Hardwicke
  • Their daughter, Anabel, Countess de Grey and Baroness Lucas (1750–1833), 4 St. James's Square, London, recorded in the 'Back Room Below' (i.e. Ground Floor) in an inventory with hanging plans, no. 11 or 19
  • Her nephew, Thomas Philip, 3rd Earl de Grey, 3rd Baron Grantham and 5th Baron Lucas (1781–1859), the reverse with a printed label from his 1834 catalogue, no. 19, 'Canaletto/View of Venice'
  • His eldest daughter, Anne Florence, Baroness Lucas (1806–1880), wife of George Augustus Frederick, 6th Earl Cowper
  • Their son, Francis Thomas, 7th Earl Cowper, 4th Lord Dingwall, 3rd Baron Butler, and later 7th Baron Lucas of Crudwell (1834–1905)
  • His nephew, Auberon Thomas Herbert, 5th Lord Dingwall and 8th Baron Lucas of Crudwell (1876–1916)
  • By whom sold, London, Christie's, 31 March 1906, lot 19, for 340 Guineas, to Gooden and Fox (according to the Christie's 2003 sale catalogue)
  • Sir George Leon, 2nd Bt. (1875–1947), and by inheritance to his second wife and widow, Anne Dorothy, subsequently Mrs. Thomas Parrington (d. 1963), Chilbolton, Hampshire
  • With Marlborough Fine Art, New York, stock no. 34911
  • Private collection, Switzerland, by 1987
  • Anonymous sale ('The Property of a European Collection'), London, Christie's, 10 December 2003, lot 51, where offered (est. £3,000,000 – 5,000,000)
  • Acquired privately immediately thereafter for the Grasset Collection

Estimate: £3,000,000 - 5,000,000
Sold: £3,665,000 (US$4,467,635)

Lot 14 | Jan Davidsz. De Heem | Still life of flowers in a glass vase with insects and fruits in a stone niche, Oil on oak panel
Created in Utrecht 1606 - 1683/4 Antwerp
34.2 x 26.8 cm

  • Probably Philippe Lambert Joseph Spruyt (1727–1801), Ghent
  • His sale, Paris, J.G. Thierry, 11–13 May 1803, lot 32, for 107 Francs (‘Un Bouquet de roses, œuillets, belles de jour, pavots & autres fleurs dans une caraffe posée sur un appui où l'on remarque un abricot & des groseilles. Ce Tableau d'un coloris très frais est touché avec finesse. sur bois, Hauteur 14 pouces; largeur 10 pouces 6 lignes’)
  • Daniel Jacques Xavier de Pret Roose de Calesberg (1861–1933), Belgium
  • Thence by family descent until sold, London, Sotheby's, 9 December 1987, lot 91, for £200,000
  • Where acquired for the Grasset collection

Estimate: £1,000,000 - 1,500,000
Sold: £2,697,000 (US$3,287,643)

Lot 34 | Frederic, Lord Leighton, P.R.A. | Old Damascus, Oil on canvas
Created in Scarborough 1830 - 1896 London
134 x 106.7 cm

  • Henry Bingham Mildmay (1828-1905), 46 Berkeley Square, London and Flete House, Holbeton, Devon, by 1876
  • Thence by descent to his son Francis Bingham Mildmay, 1st Baron Mildmay of Flete (1861-1947), by 1907
  • Taxation Publishing Company, Ltd.;
  • By whom sold, London, Christie's, 25 November 1983, lot 66 to Christopher Wood, London;
  • By whom acquired for Frederick Koch (1933-2020), Sutton Place, Surrey;
  • Anonymous sale, London, Sotheby's, 8 June 1993, lot 36;
  • Where acquired by the present owner.

Estimate: £1,800,000 - 2,500,000
Sold: £2,213,000 (US$2,697,647)

Lot 20 | Osias Beert the Elder | Still life of tulips and an apothecary's rose in a stoneware vase, irises and lilies in a glass vase, together with roses, lilies, anemones, pansies, larkspur, borage and love-in-a-mist in a wicker basket and an oriental lacquer basket, all upon a table-top with cabbage white and red admiral butterflies and a dragonfly, Oil on oak panel (Auction record for the artist)
Created in Antwerp (?) circa 1580 (?) - 1624
95.7 x 119.7 cm

  • Anonymous sale ('The Property of a Gentleman'), London, Christie's, 21 April 1989, lot 14, for £480,000
  • Where acquired by Mrs Barbara Piasecka Johnson (1937–2013), Princeton, New Jersey
  • By whom sold, London, Sotheby's, 5 July 2006, lot 31, where offered (est. £600,000-800,000)
  • Acquired privately immediately thereafter for the Grasset Collection

Estimate: £400,000 - 600,000
Sold: £882,000 (US$1,078,158)

Lot 21 | Barent Avercamp | Skaters, kolf players and elegant figures with horse-drawn sleighs on a frozen river by a tower, Oil on oak panel (Auction record for the artist)
Created in Kampen 1612/13 - 1679
30.8 x 55 cm

  • Charles Auguste Louis Joseph Duc de Morny (1811–1865) (according to an inscription on an old label on the reverse stating that the painting was 'acheté 1600 francs à la vente du Duc de Morny')
  • Anonymous sale ('The Property of a Lady of Title'), London, Sotheby's, 21 April 1982, lot 6, for £56,000 to Van Dedem
  • William Baron van Dedem, London (1929–2015)
  • With Noortman and Brod, Maastricht, 1982
  • Anonymous sale ('The Property of a Gentleman'), London, Christie's, 11 December 1984, lot 108, for £85,000
  • Where acquired for the Grasset Collection

Estimate: £300,000 - 400,000 
Sold: £378,000 (460,782)

Lot 3 | Pier Francesco di Jacopo Foschi | The Virgin and Child with the Infant Saint John the Baptist and two angels, Oil on poplar panel (Auction record for the artist)
Created in Florence 1502 - 1567
109 x 85.2 cm

  • With Michael Voggenauer, Cologne
  • The British Rail Pension Fund (presumably acquired from the above)
  • By whose Trustees sold, London, Sotheby’s, 7 December 1994, lot 28, for £140,000
  • When acquired by the father of the present owner (by whom offered, Zurich, Koller, 27 September 2019, lot 3025, estimated at CHF 400,000–600,000, unsold)

Estimate: £150,000 - 200,000
Sold: £302,400 (US$368,626)

Lot 38 | Gustaf Fjæstad | The Ice Lake, Oil on canvas (Auction record for the artist)
Created in Stockholm 1868 – 1948 Arvika
150.5 x 177 cm

  • With Eduard Schulte Kunsthandel, Berlin, Cologne and Düsseldorf (on consignment from the artist during spring and summer 1902)
  • By whom sold in Berlin
  • With C.E. Fritze Ltd., Stockholm, by 1916
  • Anonymous sale, Stockholm, Bukowski's, 18-19 May 1933, lot 22 (as Svensk vinterdag)
  • Private collection, Stockholm
  • By whom sold, London, Sotheby’s, 18 June 1980, lot 134
  • Where acquired for a private collection
  • Anonymous sale ('Visions of Collecting: Royal and Aristocratic, An Important Private Collection'), London, Christie's, 19 September 2019, lot 304

Estimate: £80,000 - 120,000
Sold: £163,800 (US$199,672)

Auction Details:

Auction House: Sotheby's London
Sale: Old Masters Evening Auction
Number of Lots: 36
Sold: 31
Unsold: 5
Sale Rate: 86.1%
Sale Total: £32,721,480 (US$39,887,484)