DAVID, Jacques-Louis
(b. 1748, Paris, d. 1825, Bruxelles)

Cupid and Psyche

1817
Oil on canvas, 184 x 242 cm
Museum of Art, Cleveland

David's first history painting in exile was an extremely original and disturbing interpretation of the late antique myth of Cupid and Psyche. It was painted for the wealthy Italian patron and connoisseur Count Giovanni Battista Sommariva and, although planned in Paris, it was only finished in Brussels in 1817.

As related by 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.

Many other artists saw the lovers as innocent, tender and poetic, but David deliberately drew attention to the sexual aspect of the relationship. Normally Cupid was shown as a beautiful young man, but David depicted him as a grinning adolescent who seems proud of his recent conquest. A great contrast is set up between Cupid's coarse ruddy features and awkward angular limbs, and the pale, smooth and languid beauty of the sleeping Psyche. Unusually for David, the colours are bright and intense; in Brussels he looked at the colours used by Flemish Renaissance artists such as Jan van Eyck.

Suggested listening (streaming mp3, 4 minutes):
Francesco Gasparini: The Meddlesome Cupid, aria