In 1965 the Cleveland Museum of Art purchased Venus Discovering the Dead Adonis in celebration of its upcoming 50th anniversary. The painting was attributed to Jusepe de Ribera, a 17th-century Spanish artist who worked in Italy and adopted Caravaggio’s dramatic treatment of light and shadow. For the past several decades, however, CMA curators have considered at least a dozen other artists as plausible candidates for the picture’s authorship, and the label on the gallery wall no longer lists Ribera’s name. Was the museum’s purchase a mistake?
Far from being devalued when its authorship was questioned, this masterpiece exemplifies how conscientious museums constantly reevaluate attributions based on new knowledge and increased access to images and scholarship. There is no question that the artist who painted Adonis’s elegantly attenuated body and Venus’s theatrical gesture and flying drapery was a master of composition, color, and form, but the identity of the artist remains the subject of speculation. Could the painter have been a young Luca Giordano, who was known to closely emulate Ribera, or perhaps Mattia Preti, who was well versed in the Neapolitan style exhibited in this work? Indeed, some scholars are still convinced that the painting could be by Ribera.
Several depictions of the same subject by Italian and Spanish Baroque painters are similar in style, treatment of theme, and coloring, demonstrating the complexity of tracing an idea’s origin or of fully understanding how an artist’s style evolved. Among these paintings is an example in the collection of the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica in Rome that is securely attributed to Ribera and dated 1637, but stylistically differs from the Cleveland version. With or without a secure artist attribution, Venus Discovering the Dead Adonis is undoubtedly one of the Cleveland Museum of Art’s greatest Baroque pictures and a reminder that many exciting discoveries await us.