Cupid & Psyche
by Sharrell E. Gibson
Woven into the graceful folds of Greek mythology, are the classic concepts, motifs, and markings which Western civilization has adopted as its own. The Greeks possessed an inherent joy and adoration for the arts. Despite the passage of centuries, Greek literature has retained its freshness and relevance, its ability to pierce to the heart of human situations in matters of love or war. On most subjects, the Greeks said it first and said it well. The story of Cupid and Psyche is no exception.∗ This is clearly a romance that has transcended time. Images of this couple are still depicted on modern day posters and on most Valentine's card.|
In order to truly appreciate the various paintings depicting this love-story, one must first understand the key elements of the myth. As with most tales, there are a few different renditions of the story. Psyche was the daughter of a king and queen who had become famous for her unparalleled beauty. Men and women came from far and near to see this young virgin. They hailed her as a "goddess". These praises were once only bestowed upon the immortals - in particular, Venus, the goddess of love grew quite envious. In response, she complained to her son, Cupid. She asked him to "infuse into the bosom of that haughty girl a passion for some low, mean, unworthy being, so that she may reap a mortification as great as her present exultation and triumph." (Bulfinch, 6) Cupid had every intention of appeasing his mother; however, once he had set eyes on Psyche, he too had fallen captive to her beauty and charm. In fact, he would watch her sleep at night and flee her bedside by dawn religiously.
However, Psyche was unaware of this secret admiration from Cupid. Ironically, she and her parents were hoping for a wedding proposal. But none came. Finally, they consulted the oracle of Apollo who revealed Psyche's destiny. "No mortal man would be Psyche's husband - instead, she must be abandoned upon a cliff where a monster would claim her as his bride." (Bulfinch,8). And so they obeyed. When they arrived at the cliff, soft winds carried Psyche off to a magical palace which she was told belonged to her. These same winds provided her with anything she needed and wanted. However, she had not met her husband. He would come to her at night and inspire her with love and passion. When she begged to see his face, he denied with the words "Do you not know me by my touch? ... Do you not trust our love? ... Never ask me again, dearest Psyche, or I will have to leave you." (Bulfinch,8) Psyche accepted the terms of their relationship for quite some time. But when she learned that she was pregnant, her curiosity overwhelmed her - she had to see her lover's face. So, that night when he came to her as usual, she waited until he was asleep and then she lit a lantern. Much to her surprise, she did not see a monster, but rather a god - a magnificent god. He had 'golden curls', a gentle face with 'child-like innocence', and 'feathered wings'. At his bare feet, she saw his bow and arrows. Suddenly, Cupid was wakened by a drop of hot oil, from the lantern onto his shoulder. He flew away from Psyche at once. In an effort to follow Cupid, Psyche had fallen unconscious. By the time she had awakened, she was no longer in her palace but in a barren field with no form of life present. She searched everywhere for her husband. After learning of what had transpired, Venus set out to make Psyche suffer. And so she did, with many tests and punishments. In the meantime, Cupid was recovering from his wound, and growing desperate with the absence of his one, true love - Psyche. He begged Zeus, the king of the gods, to allow the union of Psyche and him. Zeus, in turn persuaded Venus to invite Psyche into their heavens. Psyche was given a drink of Ambrosia, which endowed her with eternal immortality, and most importantly, eternity with Cupid. In time, Psyche and Cupid had their daughter and named her Pleasure.
Many of the highlights of this fable are constantly depicted in pieces of art. Some of these images of Cupid and Psyche convey certain aspects of the tale, reflecting so much of the artistic interpretations of the literature. Other paintings focused on the emotion of the characters. It is quite interesting to analyze the artistic perspective on this ancient fable.
This immortal love affair of ancient Greek mythology was recaptured in William Bouguereau's painting, The Abduction of Psyche. It was completed in 1895. This oil-on-canvas piece holds dimensions of 120 cm by 209 cm, roughly 4 ft. by 7 ft. It is presently part of a private collection. In viewing such beauty, one may be compelled to delve into the life of this artist, William-Adolphe Bouguereau. He was born in 1825 in the town of La Rochelle. As a young man, William put himself through the Ecole des Beaux-Art by bookkeeping for a wine merchant and designing labels for a grocer. He had a difficult start in his career, but he was able to attain a long, successful career as an academic painter, showing his works in the annual Paris Salons. He rejected the impressionist movement, which was evident in his work. He seemed to possess a tenderness in his portrayal of children, family life and matters of the heart.
Purple is the color, which stands out most in the painting. The purple sheath billowing around Psyche seductively conceals her milk-white flesh. According to Laura Funder, "purple is a color that has been associated with royalty ... it symbolized power, leadership, respect, and wealth." One can assume that Bouguereau used this color to depict the royalty awaiting them in the heavens above. Another symbolic presence can be attributed to the 'butterfly', which loomed behind Psyche. In antiquity, the image of a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis stood for the soul leaving the body at death. This emergence can be paralleled to the artistic means by which Psyche seems as though she is emerging beyond the butterfly wings behind her. Finally, the ever-present white light in the background lends an aura of resurrection and new life. It was also interesting that Cupid is portrayed here without his bow and arrow, his trademark. Perhaps, he no longer needs his bow and arrow, because he has finally kindled the love of his life - Psyche.
The background in these paintings provides yet another dimension for comparison. David's piece, Cupid and Psyche used the velour of a rich, red, draped backdrop to invoke an atmosphere of sex and intimacy within a loving relationship. The setting here is clearly a bedroom within Psyche's palace. It is also worth noting that both Cupid and Psyche lay completely exposed in their nudity. There is no discretion. The palace setting lends an air of materialism to their fantasy. On the other hand, Bouguereau used a natural setting with undefined clouds and bright light. This portrayal endeared the star-crossed lovers to its observers, in that their passion seemed innate and uplifting. Despite their blending with nature, the sheath covering them ensures a level of privacy for the young lovers.
Bouguereau's painting depicts the characters of Cupid and Psyche as immortal lovers, transcending the world below. They are even portrayed as majestic or angelic figures, capturing the natural spirit of destiny's truest fulfillment. Both lovers appear to be mature and ready to accept their new life together. Their physical bodies seem to be intertwined as one - the very essence of the union of marriage. Cupid is finally introducing Psyche to his world.
David's piece reflects blushing innocence - a typical trait of adolescence. Cupid and Psyche appear to be less connected, and clearly of different worlds. He is still an immortal god while she remains a mortal beauty. Cupid visits Psyche's palace and gets a taste of life as a mere mortal on earth. David's depiction conveys their love-story in more realistic terms, through the use of a materialistic setting.
Under close examination, virtually every stroke may be interpreted as a symbol of something deeper. However, the different works of Bouguereau and David have provided a new level of appreciation for the personality of Psyche. Today, Cupid and Psyche remain as a symbol of everlasting love.
∗ Please note: The story of Cupid and Psyche first appeared in the Roman novel, Metamorphoseon: Asinius Aureas by Apuleius in the 2nd century AD.