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Adonis and a Sleeping Goddess

  • Object:


  • Place of origin:

    London (made)

  • Date:

    after 1699 (made)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Smith, John (mezzotinter)
    Poussin, Nicolas, born 1594 - died 1665 (artist)

  • Materials and Techniques:


  • Museum number:


  • Gallery location:

    Prints & Drawings Study Room, level D, case EM24B

Mezzotint is a form of tonal engraving. The engraver first creates a surface that will print solid black by roughening the surface of a copper plate with a serrated tool called a 'rocker'. This process raises a fragile burr of displaced copper which will hold a lot of printing ink. The design is then created by smoothing this burr in varying degrees to print a range of velvety tones. For white highlights, the engraver polishes the burr completely away, making the plate perfectly smooth once more, so no ink will adhere after the surface has been wiped. Mezzotint is particularly suited to reproducing the tonal gradations of painting.

John Smith was the most important mezzotinter in late Stuart England as well as being a print publisher. A generation before the now more famous William Hogarth, he was the first native born British printmaker to earn an international reputation. Active from 1683 to 1729 he made his name and his fortune as the creator of portrait mezzotints but in the same period he also made or published 'subject' mezzotints, a blanket term for everything which is not a portrait.

Smith was taught mezzotinting by Isaac Beckett who learnt the technique from John Lloyd, who in turn learnt it from the Dutch printmaker Abraham Blooteling (1640-1690) who was resident in London from 1673-1680. Smith began his career around 1683 mezzotinting portraits for other publishers but by 1687 was beginning to act as his own publisher and by the early 1690s had taken over from Isaac Beckett (died 1688) as the mezzotinter who had an agreement with Kneller to reproduce his portraits. This professional partnership between an artist and a printmaker is similar to one or two other important examples of the same phenomenon (Raphael and Marcantonio Raimondi, John Constable and David Lucas) in being a crucial vehicle for the dissemination of a painter's work at the same time as it pushed a talented printmaker to new heights of achievement.

Physical description


Place of Origin

London (made)


after 1699 (made)


Smith, John (mezzotinter)
Poussin, Nicolas, born 1594 - died 1665 (artist)

Materials and Techniques


Marks and inscriptions

I.Smith fc. Poussin Pinxit. Sold by I. Smith at the Lyon & Crown in Russell Street Covent Garden.
Textual information

Ten lines of verse beginning-
"The silly Poets, they say No,
The cunning Painter says,'twas so;"
Textual information


Height: 27.9 cm Size of plate, Width: 22.0 cm Size of plate

Object history note

Museum numbers E.104-133-1998 were lot 500 at the sale at Sotheby's London on 13 November 1997 of an Eighteenth Century Collection of British Prints. This collection was put together in Germany, mostly in the period 1770-1800. The lot consisted chiefly of mezzotints by John Smith, or by other mezzotinters but subsequently republished by John Smith.

Descriptive line

John Smith (1652-1743) after ?Nicholas Poussin (1594-1665)
Adonis and a Sleeping Godess

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

G.K. Nagler "Neues allgemeines Kunstler-Lexicon", Munch 1835-52 no 368
Thomas, Ben 'The Paradox of Mezzotint'; University of Kent; 2008
'Early English Mezzotints: John Smith as Printmaker and Publisher', Elizabeth Miller; Prints, Drawings and Paintings Temporary Display; 8th April-8th November 1998
J. E. Wessely, "John Smith: Verzeichniss seiner Schabkunstblätter", Hamburg 1887

Labels and date

The poem under the print reads

The silly poets, they say No,
The cunning painter says, 'twas so;
The poets swear the painter lies,
The painter cries, believe your eyes.
Well! I believe the painter still;
For who can think say what you will,
That when Adonis lay so near,
A goddess thighs, he could forbear.
So having found more pleasing game
Let Cupid hunt, he'll ply the dame.

There are at least two versions of this painting in existence including an octagonal canvas at Chatsworth, but the suggestive poem is an additional feature only present in the print. Some other prints published by Smith have lecherous captions and some even verge on the pornographic. []

Production Note

The Witt Library at the Courtauld Institute records three painted versions of this subject. An octagonal shaped one at Chatsworth, one in a landscape format in reverse of the print sold at Hotel Drouot, Paris June 1884 sale of the Lord Dunmore Collection and a third described as Circle of Vouet, sold at a Christie's sale, Villa D'este, (Lago di Como) 31 March- 1 June 1971.

Another impression is in the Smith Volume in the National Portrait Gallery where it is called Cupid and Psyche but Adonis is mentioned by name in the verses under the image.


Printing ink



Subjects depicted



Prints; Images Online


Prints, Drawings & Paintings Collection

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