DYCK, Sir Anthony van
(b. 1599, Antwerpen, d. 1641, London)

Cupid and Psyche

Oil on canvas, 199,4 x 191,8 cm
Royal Collection, Windsor

Cupid and Psyche is without doubt one of the most beautiful paintings undertaken by Van Dyck for Charles I. It is a late work, possibly dating from 1639-40, thinly painted throughout with several changes visible to the naked eye and some passages, particularly in the landscape, unresolved to the extent that the painting might not have been properly finished. Significantly, when first recorded in the Long Gallery at Whitehall Palace the picture was unframed. Both these factors might have some bearing on the circumstances of the commission. It has been suggested, for example, that the subject relates to the decoration of the Queen's Cabinet at Greenwich, which was initiated towards the end of 1639 by Rubens and Jacob Jordaens but was never completed - although a certain amount of preparatory material by Jordaens is recorded. Alternatively, the painting could have been made in the context of the celebrations for the marriage of Princess Mary to William II of Orange (April-May 1641).

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.

Van Dyck's role as court painter seems primarily to have been directed towards portraiture, even though he was a supremely able painter of poesie in the Italian tradition. Cupid and Psyche is the only mythological composition known to survive from the time of the artist's full employment at the English court (after 1632). Bellori records that other mythological paintings were made but these are now lost. This accounts for the long gap between the Rinaldo and Armida (Baltimore, Museum of Art), which the king commissioned in 1630 before the artist settled permanently in London, and Cupid and Psyche. In many ways the later painting may be seen as a summation of Van Dyck's art in this field. The composition successfully combines the artist's feeling for landscape with his understanding of the human form, both aspects being conveyed through superb draughtsmanship, here successfully conflated by the skilful use of diagonals. 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.

Stylistically, the principal inspiration is Titian, whose pictures were such a major feature of Charles I's collection, but the highly charged poetic feeling, refined use of colours balancing warm and cold hues, and delicate modelling of human flesh that Van Dyck brings to the painting anticipate French Rococo art, especially the work of Watteau. In addition, it should not be forgotten that Cupid and Psyche was painted on the eve of the outbreak of the Civil War, so in many respects the choice of subject and the poetic intensity of the painting have a certain poignancy when seen in an historical context.

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