3. A metaphysical love story
As related the Roman writer Lucius Apuleius in The Golden Ass (late second century AD), Cupid, the god of
love, fell in love with the beautiful Psyche and brought her to his palace, where he visited her every night
without ever letting her see his face. But curiosity got the better of her, and one night Psyche looked at Cupid
while he was asleep.
Unfortunately a drop of hot oil fell from her lamp and awakened him, whereupon he abandoned her and the
palace disappeared. From then on Psyche was condemned to wander the earth and perform impossible tasks
in the vain hope of winning her lover back.
The myth was both a love story and a metaphysical allegory, since Psyche is the Greek word for "soul".
59. FRAGONARD, Jean-Honoré
Psyche Showing Her Sisters Her Gifts from Cupid
Fragonard's work is probably based on La Fontaine's version of the fable. After falling in love with Psyche, Cupid had visited her only at night,
forbidding her to look upon him.
In the painting, Psyche shows her two sisters the gifts she has received from her lover, and moved by jealousy - a Fury appears in the sky
above the sisters - they persuade her to uncover Cupid's identity and thus wreck her happiness.
60. GÉRARD, François
Cupid and Psyche
Gérard shows Cupid kissing the young woman's forehead, unseen by her. Surprised and aroused, Psyche is shyly crossing her arms over her naked
This is the first pang of love, the beginning of a love story that would take Psyche and Cupid through all kinds of trials and tribulations before their
marriage on Mount Olympus.
The scene painted by Gérard therefore symbolizes the Neoplatonic theme of the union of the human soul and divine love. The artist has painted a
butterfly hovering over the young woman's head: the insect's name in ancient Greek is also "psyche" and symbolizes the soul.
61. DAVID, Jacques-Louis
Cupid and Psyche
David used the story of Cupid and Psyche to explore the conflict between idealized love and physical reality.
Cupid, lover of the beautiful mortal Psyche, visited her nightly on the condition that she not know his identity. Cupid was usually depicted as an
ideal adolescent, but here David presents him as an ungainly teenager smirking at his sexual conquest.
David took inspiration from a number of ancient texts, including an obscure Greek poem by Moschus that describes Cupid as a mean-spirited brat
with dark skin, flashing eyes, and curly hair.
62. HAMILTON, Hugh Douglas
Cupid and Psyche in the Nuptial Bower
The classical myth of Cupid's love for Psyche stirred the imagination of many artists in the eighteenth century. In spite of the title, Hamilton's
interpretation seems to show an earlier episode in the story. The scene is a woodland setting at night. The figures are placed in front of a large tree over
which is placed a red canopy. In the background is a lake-side.
The youthful, handsome Cupid sits on the bank by the tree and gently draws Psyche towards him. In spite of her hesitancy the love of the two is evident.
This work was inspired by a sculpture of the same subject by Antonio Canova, who was working in Rome during Hamilton's last years in that city.
Canova's neo-classical forms are recalled in the smooth, idealised figures of the young lovers.
The mythological theme of the painting is reinforced with symbolism. Both figures are winged, Psyche's wings being those of a butterfly, symbol of both
the soul and of Psyche in Greek art.
In the right foreground of the composition, a real butterfly rests on a rose, an attribute of cupid. In the left foreground his other attributes, the bow and
quiver are laid on the ground. Silhouetted against the background on the left is ivy, symbol of immortality.
63. BURNE-JONES, Edward
Pan and Psyche
When Psyche is distraught over the loss of her love Eros, she attempts suicide in a river. She survives and the god Pan offers her comfort and
Burne-Jones painted this version of Pan and Psyche after his lover, Mary Zambaco, attempted to throw herself in Regent’s Canal in an ugly and
embarrassing scene. It was the breaking point of an illicit relationship that was painful for all involved.
Burne-Jones had intense feelings for Mary but could not bring himself to abandon his children or his wife Georgie. Mary had grown increasingly
desperate and, upon the realization that he would not leave his family, presented Ned with a sufficient amount of Laudanum to kill them both. In
response to his shocked refusal, she ran to the river and he was forced to wrestle her to the ground.
64. LEGROS, Alphonse
Cupid and Psyche
The Roman poet Lucius Apuleius wrote the tale of Cupid and Psyche. Psyche was given a box containing beauty for the goddess Venus. But she
could not resist looking inside it and was sent into a deep sleep.
Legros shows the moment when her lover, Cupid, discovers her in her torpor. He is about to wake her with a touch of his arrow. The composition
of the reclining female figure shows the influence of Italian artists such as Giorgione and Titian, as well as Rembrandt.
65. GOYA Y LUCIENTES, Francisco de
Allegory of Love, Cupid and Psyche
The scene is associated with the story of Cupid and Psyche, immortalised in the 'Metamorphoses' by Lucius Apuleius, in which the god of sexual
attraction falls in love with Psyche and visits her at night always to conceal his identity.
This is an allegory of love with an erotic touch. The composition is similar to that of Titian's work 'Tarquin and Lucretia', which formed part of the
Spanish royal collections from 1571 and is now kept at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge.
Similarities have been pointed out between the model of female personifying Psyche and the one that posed for Goya's 'Majas', and with María Gabriela
Palafox y Portocarrero, Marquesa de Lazán, painted by Goya in 1804.
66. CRESPI, Giuseppe Maria
Cupid and Psyche
This painting has been in the Uffizi Gallery since 1926. The episode depicted was drawn from the Metamorphosis by Apuleius (V. 22).
Cupid, in love with Psyche, appears to her under a false semblance, prohibiting her from seeing and recognizing him. Driven by curiosity, Psyche
observes Cupid by the light of a lantern and accidentally awakens him. For this reason she will be abandoned by the god and punished.
67. DYCK, Sir Anthony van
Cupid and Psyche
Cupid and Psyche is without doubt one of the most beautiful paintings undertaken by Van Dyck for Charles I.
The story of Cupid and Psyche was well known at the English court. The source is The Golden Ass by Apuleius (Books 4-6). Van Dyck has chosen the
moment when Cupid discovers Psyche overcome by sleep after opening the casket which Venus had requested her to bring back, unopened, from
Proserpine in Hades. This was one of the tricks set by Venus in Psyche's attempt to find Cupid.
Compositionally, there is a kinship with paintings of Adam and Eve or the Annunciation. It is stated traditionally that Psyche's features resembled those
of Van Dyck's mistress, Margaret Lemon.
The sense of movement implied by Cupid's arrival contrasts with the stillness of Psyche asleep to create a tension that is the very essence of the
picture, matching perfectly the contrast within the story itself between Beauty (Psyche) and Desire (Cupid). Such ethereal neo-Platonic ideals, which
were open to various interpretations about love and the soul, were nurtured as part of the court life of Charles I and Henrietta Maria.