Where? Gallery 201 of the Cleveland Museum of Art
Commissioned by? Giovanni Battista Sommariva, an Italian politician and art collector
What do you see? The beautiful nude Psyche sleeps on the bed after making love to Cupid. She has one arm over her head and the other arm lays over Cupid’s thigh. The couple lays on two large bedcovers that hang from the top of the painting. Cupid is awake and looks at the viewer with a smirky smile. He wears large white wings and has curly hair. However, something seems off about him. He looks like a teenager who is proud that he just made love to the most beautiful woman on Earth. He shows that pride with a somewhat annoying smile to the viewers. It seems that Cupid wants to sneak away as Psyche is not supposed to see who makes love to her every night. He tries to lift up the arm of Psyche such that he can leave (though he will still have to remove his wings from under Psyche’s body). The bow of Cupid stands against the bed below his right leg, and on the left side of the bed stands his quiver with arrows. Above the head of Psyche is a white butterfly, which is her symbol. Another butterfly is decorated on the middle of the bed frame in the middle of other gold decorations. In the background, we can look through a window at a landscape with mountains and a small temple. Jacques-Louis David has signed the painting on the footpiece on the right side of the bed.
Backstory: This painting is also known under the name, Love and Psyche. Jacques-Louis David started this painting in 1813 when he still lived in Paris and finished it in 1817 when he lived in exile in Brussels. Before his exile, David was known for his paintings with political and social messages, but after his exile, he seemed to focus on less complicated subjects like the current painting. His sketchbooks from before his exile already contained many drawing of mythological subjects, so his exile was a good reason to convert some of those ideas into paintings.
The story of Cupid and Psyche? This painting of Cupid and Psyche is based on a story that the Roman writer, Apuleius, wrote in his book Metamorphoses, chapters four, five, and six (you can download the book here for free). In short, Psyche was considered the most beautiful woman alive, and Cupid fell in love with her. The goddess Venus was jealous of her beauty. So, she sent Psyche on a very dangerous journey to the underworld to collect a flask with Proserpina’s beauty ointment. She succeeds with the help of Cupid. Venus instructed Psyche not to open the flask, but after she completes the journey, she could not resist and opened it to take some of the beauty. Instead of becoming more beautiful, the ointment makes her fall into a very deep sleep as Proserpina had filled the flask with sleep of the innermost darkness. Cupid forgives Psyche and revives her. Antonio Canova created a sculpture on the moment just after this revival. The sculpture, Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss is in the Louvre. After this, Cupid asks for the help of Zeus who makes Psyche immortal and Cupid and Psyche marry and stay together forever. The story of Psyche has inspired many artists over time, including Caravaggio, Raphael, Titian, and Vélazquez.
Symbolism: Most artworks on Cupid and Psyche focus on the love between both. They would show both of them with idealized bodies. However, that is not the case in this painting. At first glance, this painting seems to be about physical desire. Cupid is not depicted as a very handsome man, but as a teenager with a far from ideal face. He shares his pride about making love to such a beautiful woman by smirking at the viewer. Looking a bit longer at the painting, it also presents a scene of the morning-after. They made love during the night, and in the morning, Cupid tries to sneak away from Psyche without saying goodbye. There has been quite some speculation about any deeper meanings behind this painting, especially because of the awkward depiction of Cupid, but no dominant one has emerged.
Who is Jacques-Louis David? Jacques-Louis David was born in 1748 in Paris. He was one of the most popular painters during his life and one of the most famous neoclassical painters. He was a supporter of the French Republic and Napoleon and even became the court painter of Napoleon. The Coronation of Napoleon in the Louvre is one of the magnificent paintings he created for Napoleon in 1807. After the fall of Napoleon in 1815, David was exiled from France. He wanted to spend the rest of his life in Rome, but the Pope did not approve this. Instead, he went to Brussels where he spent the rest of his life until his death in 1825. While in Brussels, he continued painting. One of the works he created in Brussels was The Farewell of Telemachus and Eucharis in the Getty Museum.
Fun fact: Psyche in Greek means both ‘soul’ and ‘butterfly.’ In this painting, there are two butterflies. One is decorated on the bottom of the bed, and the other one flies above Psyche. Nowadays, psyche is also the name of a specific butterfly, the leptosia nina. This is a small, white butterfly comparable to the one depicted above the head of Psyche in this painting.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster.
Written by Eelco Kappe