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"The Death of Adonis"
-- Joseph Mohan
Anthonie Waterloo (1609-1690), while not widely known today, was an acclaimed etcher in the 17th century. Born in 1609, his family fled from Flanders to Amsterdam for religious reasons. Throughout his career, he specialized in printmaking. He did execute several notable paintings, however, which were influenced by Jacob van Ruisdael and Jan Vermeer van Haarlem II. Additionally, aspects of his work may have been influenced by his Flemish cultural background. He was married to Cathalyna van der Dorp in 1640, and fathered six children.
Throughout his career, Waterloo remained prolific, particularly in the area of the graphic arts, producing nearly one hundred and forty prints. The bulk of his oeuvre depicts forest and landscape scenes, and at one point Waterloo concentrated on topographic works of Amsterdam almost exclusively. In fact, he, along with the artists Jan Beerstraten and Roelant Roghman, popularized this genre. Nevertheless, he also produced narrative prints such as The Death of Adonis and Ambush in a Wood. Like many artists of the time, Waterloo traveled throughout Europe extensively, starting in 1655. Perhaps most importantly, he spent time in Italy. Waterloo lived an extraordinarily long life, considering the time period, dying in Utrecht in 1690. While Dutch Baroque art is commonly associated with domestic genre subjects, the 17th century in Holland also boasted a number of artists working in an Italianate classical manner, such as Jan Both and Jan Asselyn. Like genre and still-life works, these classically oriented pieces nearly always included an underlying emblematic meaning. Waterloo's "The Death of Adonis" falls into this category.
Waterloo's technique in "The Death of Adonis" reflects the efforts of artists during the 17th century to expand the capabilities of etching as a medium. While the work as a whole communicates a tight, controlled visual style, closer inspection reveals a certain casual, almost painterly quality to the line. His style follows the grand tradition of Dutch landscape prints. Waterloo owes greatly to the precedent-setting work of artists who came before him, notably Jacob van Ruisdael. Numerous similarities, such as the artist's use of line and the dramatic placement of a tree and massing of details on the right side of the scene, connect The Death of Adonis with Ruisdael's Jewish Cemetery (c. 1655-1660). Waterloo used many quick and intricately curved strokes to realistically convey the spatial depth and texture of the tree in his etching, which contrasts with the relatively simple line used to illustrate Adonis' dogs as they pursue the wild boar. In order to express a realistic sense of movement, Waterloo employed a single strong decisive line to delineate the dog's body, which is set against a sparsely hatched ground. Dramatic scenes of action, such as this, separate Waterloo's landscapes from the more peaceful, contemplative landscapes of Ruisdael.
Waterloo's Italianate influences figure prominently in "The Death of Adonis." While the work is undated, we can assume he produced it after his possible sojourn to Italy between 1655 and 1660. His use of line boasts a tense balance between precise control and dynamic movement, akin to the painterly effects of Caravaggio's works. Waterloo makes facile use of the etching medium by using a more shallow bite in the background, creating a realistic sense of spatial depth and atmospheric perspective. He also exploits the tonal capabilities of the technique to create a subtle Baroque sense of soft, filtered light within the landscape scene. The intricate lines of the large tree contrast with the small opening where Adonis' supine body is positioned on the ground, which appears to have a diffused beam of light cast upon it. This juxtaposition draws the eye of the viewer from the swarming detailed background with the massive tree to the restful, calm area featuring the dying Adonis. Waterloo's skillful use of Baroque diagonals further reinforces the pictorial focus on the body of the tragic mythological hero.
According to ancient myth, Adonis was loved widely and intensely by all, but by none more than Venus. She brought him to Persephone, who also loved him greatly, and who refused to return him to Venus. Ultimately, Jupiter intervened and ruled that Adonis should spend half the year with each. It is during his time spent with Venus that Adonis came to his unfortunate end. Venus usually followed Adonis during his daily activities, but on one particular summer day she was remiss in her usual attentiveness. Adonis, in his attempts to kill a wild boar, only succeeded in wounding the beast with his spear. The boar charged at him, goring Adonis with his tusks. As he lay dying, Venus swooped low to the earth, and kissed him as he died. According to myth, a red anemone, Adonis' flower, grew from the earth in every spot his blood dropped. And so, each season when the red anemone blooms, Greek girls rejoiced at the return of Adonis, and mourned for the remainder of the year.
The themes of Adonis and his death are not exclusive to the work of Waterloo. For example, the Flemish Baroque master Peter Paul Rubens also rendered Adonis in his famous painting Venus and Adonis (1635). In considering Waterloo's Flemish heritage, it is not known if Rubens' painted version of the Adonis theme inspired Waterloo's interest in the myth, but the inclusion of the boar hunt in the print may have been influenced by Rubens' extensive production of hunting scenes. Moreover, other Dutch Baroque artists, notably Paulus Potter, used the subject of the boar hunt in their work, indicating the tendency in Holland to combine the genres of animal pieces with naturalistic landscape scenes. Waterloo's Death of Adonis represents a creative synthesis of both the naturalistic Dutch Baroque and the classicizing landscape traditions, which was combined with Rubens' Flemish hunting motif.
As indication of his Dutch artistic identity, the mythological theme of the death of Adonis may have an emblematic reference. Adonis was one of the tragic youthful figures glorified in ancient mythology, who, upon their death, was changed into a flower. Not only is the fate of the youthful Adonis a reminder of the fleeting nature of physical beauty and earthly life, but the fragile, temporary life of the flower also reinforces the function of the vanitas emblem to remind the viewer of the ephemeral nature of youth and the ultimate reality of aging and death. Although a flower is not directly depicted in the print, its mythic association with the Adonis theme would have led the Dutch viewer to interpret Waterloo's image as a vanitas reference, since flowers were frequently employed in vanitas still-life pieces as emblems of transient physical beauty. It is also possible the theme of the dying Adonis juxtaposed with the idea of a blossoming flower has Christian connotations of death and spiritual rebirth.
Most likely, Waterloo's classicizing Italianate landscape etching with a mythological motif was produced to specifically appeal to a Dutch patrician class, which had less interest in more realistic Dutch landscape scenes. Italianate landscape prints such as The Death of Adonis would have allowed the upper middle class art patron in Holland to indulge in more courtly tastes.