Cupid and Psyche Painting: Their Story on Canvas

Cupid and Psyche painting after making love

The earliest accounts of Cupid and Psyche have been found in Greek artworks dating as early as the 4th century BC. However, a detailed tale of the two first appeared in a literary work called the Metamorphoses. This work is now popularly known as ‘The Golden Ass’. The story was written in the 2nd century AD by Lucius Apuleius Madaurensis. Here’s a detailed article about the meaning, myth, and analysis of the famous Cupid and Psyche painting.

The Myth of Cupid and Psyche

The love story of Cupid and Psyche consists of several hardships and tragedies in way of their eventual union. It is these difficulties and their undying efforts to overcome them that make their story memorable. Cupid or Cupido is a Latin term meaning Desire. The term Psyche refers to the Soul or mind.

Apart from Cupid and Psyche, the story has a third protagonist, Aphrodite, the mother of Cupid. Aphrodite is also known as Venus, the Greek goddess of beauty. Naturally, the goddess of beauty was stunning herself, worshipped for her unmatchable perfect features. Her character is passionate and easily driven by emotions. She loved all that was close to her intensely. However, her possessiveness and passion sometimes pushed her too far.

Venus’ Jealousy

Psyche was a human princess, the youngest of a king’s three daughters. Even though all the three girls were extremely beautiful, Psyche’s beauty stood out to all. The people of her land neglected the worship of Venus and instead worshipped Psyche, probably because she was human and more relatable to people. Venus took offense to this neglect and naturally became jealous.

When Cupid shoots his arrow at a human, they fall in love with the first thing they see. Out of jealousy, Venus ordered her son Cupid to shoot his arrow at Psyche such that she falls in love with an ugly monster. Cupid complied with his mother and set out to shoot Psyche. However when he was trying to retrieve a an arrow from his quiver, he scratched himself with an arrow. The moment he got scratched he looked at Psyche, and immediately fell in love with her. It’s unclear whether Cupid scratched himself accidentally or on purpose.

Upon knowing this, Aphrodite’s bitterness led her to make every attempt in thwarting their union. Her envy was not just fuelled by the fact that Psyche’s beauty rivaled her, but that her son who was a God had fallen for a human.

The Unseen Face of Cupid

Cupid soon pursued Psyche and loved her dearly. However, Cupid made sure that Psyche never saw what he looked like. He was a wonderful husband, so Psyche didn’t mind the fact that she couldn’t see him.

As the wife of a divine being Psyche had all the luxuries she could ever imagine. Upon knowing about the perfect life Psyche was living, her sisters instigated her to find the reality about Cupid’s face. The sisters succeeded in provoking her to act on her insecurities. As a result, Psyche decided to approach a sleeping Cupid with a lamp to look at him.

Cupid’s beauty enchanted Psyche the moment she laid eyes on him. While she continued to look at him, some wax dripped on his wing and Cupid woke up, startled. Feeling betrayed and hurt, he flew away without a word. Compelled by the love of her beautiful husband, she urged Venus to give her another chance. Venus saw an opportunity to avenge her disrespect. She agreed to help Psyche but there were some life threatening obstacles that she was supposed to overcome.

Psyche’s Trials

In the first trial, Venus presents Psyche with a massive heap of various grains like wheat, barley, and poppyseeds. She demands Psyche to sort them into different heaps by sunset. There are no conditions to this task, Venus does not say that she will help reunite the couple on completion. Psyche accepts the task even though she is certain that there’s no way she could do this in time. When Venus leaves, a group of ants take pity on her and complete the work in the stipulated time.

Soon after this Venus decides on a second task for Psyche. She is asked to cross a river and collect golden fleece from violent sheep that live on the other side. To accomplish this task she is divinely instructed to gather wool caught in the bushes instead of collecting it from the sheep directly. Her completion of this task further angers Venus and she sets an even more difficult task.

In the next trial, Venus gives her a crystal vessel to collect black water from rivers that have their source on top of a cliff, plagued with dragons. Another divine intervention in the form of Jupiter takes pity on her. He sends his eagle to battle the dragons, who also extract the water for her. 

For her final trial Psyche is sent to the underworld. She is asked to obtain a drop of the beauty of the queen of the underworld, Proserpina. Overcome with despair Psyche plans to go on a cliff to throw herself off it. All of a sudden the cliff starts to speak and guides her to the entrance of the underworld. The voice instructs her to take barley cakes as treats for distracting Cerberus, the three-headed watchdog of Orcus. She was also instructed to take two coins for the ferryman.

Psyche’s humble request is granted by Proserpina according to plan. Psyche, however, could not resist her curiosity, and impulsively opens the casket in the hopes of enhancing her beauty. Instead, she falls into a deep, unmoving sleep as soon as she opens the casket. Proserpina, instead of giving her some of her beauty, used dark magic to put the opener of the casket in a deep unending sleep.

The Wedding Banquet

Cupid has been staying at his mother’s taking time away from Psyche. As soon as his wound heals he escapes Venus’ abode to look for his beloved. He finds his wife in a motionless state on the ground and immediately takes her in his arms. He kisses Psyche lovingly, drawing the sleep from her face and putting it in the casket meant for Venus.

Cupid takes Psyche to Zeus, who gives him consent to marry a human. The god Zeus summons an assembly of the gods in the theater of heaven, where he gives his approval to their union. Psyche is given the drink of God’s ambrosia, which makes her immortal. Her immortality was essential so that they could unite in marriage as equals. Zeus’ acceptance is commemorated with a wedding banquet. The child born to Cupid and Psyche was named “Pleasure.”

Cupid and Psyche in Art

Cupid and Psyche by Anthony Van Dyck

Anthony Van Dyck was commissioned by King Charles I to complete a series of artworks in the early 17th century. One of the paintings in this series is titled “Cupid and Psyche”. Dated approximately between 1638 to 1640 this oil painting is now in the Royal Collection at Kensington Palace.

In this composition, Van Dyck has portrayed the moment of Psyche and Cupid’s reunion after their long and difficult separation. Both Cupid and Psyche are shown as beautiful beings in a human body. The aesthetics of the characters are in line with the beauty standards of the time. They are both light skinned, with toned bodies and blonde hair.

Cupid and Psyche by Anthony Van Dyck. Public Domain

In the picture Cupid is mid flight as he rushes toward an unconscious Psyche. Some intricate details from the story include the open casket in Psyche’s hand and a very realistic unconscious posture. Their robes have been painted with great attention to the movement of the cloth. The texture and the manner in which the robes rest on their beautiful bodies draw considerable attention. Even though the background is monotonous, it is incredibly detailed and realistic. The dark trees with a golden brown tone harmonize well with the colors of the ground. The vibrant colors of the subjects’ robes make them look more three-dimensional on a rather flat background.

The scene chosen for the painting brings both relief and unease. Van Dyck’s skillful representation of the scene with proper lights and shadows enhances its tumultuous emotions several folds.

Love and Psyche by Jacques-Louis David

Jacques-Louis David was one of the most popular Neoclassical painters in the 18th and 19th centuries. The neoclassicists pay special attention to realism, logic and pleasantness of aesthetics. David’s painting “Love and Psyche” was completed in the year 1817. It is now displayed in gallery 201 of the Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland.

Cupid and Psyche painting after making love
Love and Psyche. Public Domain

David has chosen a rather uncommon theme for his painting. Unlike most other paintings that depict the couple’s tragedies and hardships, this is a picture of their happier times. The artist has painted a scene of the morning after Cupid and Psyche have made love to each other. In his painting, a beautiful nude Psyche sleeps close to Cupid who is awake. One of her arms is folded over her head and the other lies over Cupid’s thigh. One of his wings is tucked under Psyche’s body.

It is difficult to decipher Cupid’s emotions from his facial expression. He wears an awkward, cheeky smile on his face which may show his happiness or pride over spending the night with the most beautiful woman on Earth. The shine in Cupid’s eyes and the blush on his cheeks further enhance the appearance of his happiness. Just behind their bed, there is a window that shows that the sun is about to rise.

From their story, we know that Cupid kept himself concealed from Psyche for as long as he could. Therefore, before the break of day, Cupid departs without any notice. The fact that he is leaving is clear from his posture. He is in the middle of lifting her hand from his thigh as he softly descends from the bed. His bow stands against the bed under his right leg, and on the left side of the bed lies his quiver with arrows.

One of the most notable details in the painting is the way in which the various fabrics behave. It is so incredibly realistic that it seems as if we could touch and feel it. In this picture, there are two butterflies representing Psyche, whose Greek name means both ‘soul’ and ‘butterfly’. One is affixed to the bottom of Psyche’s bed, and the other flies above her. A butterfly named “Leptosia Nina” also goes by the name psyche today. Similar to the white butterfly shown above Psyche’s head in the painting, this butterfly is small and white. Among other gold decorations, another butterfly is decorated in the middle of the bed frame.

In line with neoclassicism, the painting is realistic and the characters are extremely beautiful, depicted in their perfect beauty.

The Abduction of Psyche by William-Adolphe Bouguereau

William-Adolphe Bouguereau’s most favored themes included the representation of mythological and Greek subjects. Bouguereau’s masterpiece, ‘The Abduction of Psyche’ (1895) is an instance of his many portrayals of Cupid and Psyche’s story. ‘The Abduction of Psyche’ is an elegant and loving depiction of the Greek mythological figures, Cupid and Psyche as they finally ascend to heaven. The painting immortalizes their union by capturing the moment after their marriage.

At this moment Psyche has already consumed the elixir of Gods and has been granted the wings of a butterfly. The butterfly wings are an apt addition because the term Psyche also means butterfly.

Cupid and Psyche Painting flying to heaven after marriage
The Abduction of Psyche. Public Domain

The Abduction of Psyche is a rather misleading translation of the original Latin title “L’enlèvement de Psyché” since according to the myth Psyche wasn’t abducted, she was willing to be Cupid’s wife. Moreover, Psyche’s serene and relieved expression also points toward her willingness to go to heaven with her beloved.

The most unique element in this composition is Psyche’s wings. Her wings also suggest that now she is a divine figure and no longer a human. Cupid and Psyche’s love for each other is enhanced by a shared piece of cloth that ties them together. Bouguereau’s finesse in realism is seen in the perfect bodies of the couple and the soft, realistic flow of their robes.

The Myth in Cupid and Psyche Painting

The centuries-old love story of Cupid and Psyche is still a symbol of undying love. Elements of hardships, heartbreak, and ultimate union are exciting and intriguing throughout. These elements of the story have been used in terms of allusions to religion and have accommodated numerous interpretations. The tale has been represented in the form of poetry, drama, and opera, and also in paintings and sculptures.

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