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Cupid and Psyche

© 2004 Musée du Louvre / Pierre Philibert

Sculptures
Italy

Author(s):
Béatrice Tupinier Barrillon

The story of Cupid and Psyche was a popular artistic choice in the neoclassical period. Canova produced many versions of the theme; most were of terracotta, but he also sculpted some beautiful marble groups, two of which are in the Louvre: Cupid and Psyche standing, and Psyche Revived by Cupid's Kiss.

The innocence of young love

The figures of Cupid and Psyche are standing, Cupid completely naked, Psyche modestly draped, he with his arm around her shoulders. She raises his left hand with her own, to place a butterfly on his palm. The butterfly symbolizes her soul, which she offers in all innocence to Cupid. The wandering of the soul was a concept of the Neo-platonic philosophy to which Canova adhered. The love between the two characters is represented simply, somewhat naively, by their contemplation of the butterfly.

The group stands on a high cylindrical pedestal decorated with garlands of flowers and a butterfly. The upper part of the base could be turned by a handle that can still be seen today, but is now blocked for the protection of the sculpture.

A masterly composition

Antonio Canova, a sculptor from Possagno, was only thirty years old when this sculpture was commissioned by a Scottish colonel, Sir John Campbell, whom he met in Naples in 1787 and who also commissioned the famous group known as Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss (now in the Louvre). These two sculpted groups were admired by many artists who visited Canova's studio in Rome. Due to the difficulties of transporting them to England, the groups remained in Canova's studio until French troops occupied Rome in 1798, when General Murat bought them for his château at Villiers-la-Garenne near Neuilly. During his first trip to Paris in 1802, Canova is known to have visited his two masterpieces in their new home. The two groups later entered the imperial collections before being acquired by the Musée du Louvre.

Canova made a second marble group from a plaster model of the sculpture in the Louvre; this second work is now in the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, having been acquired by Czar Alexander I in 1815 as part of the collection of Napoleon’s first wife, Josephine.

Two standing statues: an artistic challenge

Other examples of Canova’s work—Daedalus and Icarus, Venus and Adonis, Mars and Venus, Hector and Ajax—also reflect his skill in designing sculptures of two standing figures, a difficult artistic feat. Canova found simple iconographic solutions for this group, in which nothing is rigid or static. He transcended the ancient model of Cupid and Psyche in the Capitoline Museum to create a genuine duality, a true complicity between the characters. Each depends on the other. The interplay of gazes, the interconnected gestures, the two heads close together, the group of three hands, the gracefully linked bodies… everything is designed to create a single sculpture rather than two individual figures.

This group of Cupid and Psyche standing is one of Canova’s finest works; it inspired many other artists and was widely copied throughout the 19th century.

Bibliography

- HUBERT Gérard, Les Sculpteurs italiens en France sous la révolution, l’Empire et la Restauration, 1790-1830, Paris, 1964. p.39-55.

- HUBERT Gérard, Sculpture dans l’Italie napoléonienne, Paris, 1964. p.74

- PAVANELLO Giuseppe, L’Opera completa del Canova, Milan, 1976. p.102-103, n°101.

- Catalogue d’exposition, Dominique Vivant Denon : L’œil de Napoléon, Pierre Rosenberg, Marie-Anne Dupuy, dir. Paris, musée du Louvre, 20 octobre 1999 – 17 janvier 2000. p.352.

- LEROY-JAY LEMAISTRE Isabelle, Canova. Psyché ranimée par le baiser de l’Amour, Paris, 2003. p.15, 24 et 25.

- Catalogue d’exposition, Canova e la Venere Vincitrice, éd. Electra, 2007. Rome, Galerie Borghèse, octobre 2007-février 2008, p.180-181.

Technical description

  • Antonio CANOVA (Possagno, 1757 – Venice, 1822)

    Cupid and Psyche

    c. 1797

    Rome

  • Carrara marble

    H. 1.45 m

  • Commissioned by Colonel John Campbell in 1787; remained in Canova's studio until 1800. Acquired by Joachim Murat (1767 – 1815), exhibited in 1801 in his château at Villiers-la-Garenne. Ceded to Napoleon I when the latter appointed Murat King of Naples in 1808 ; transported to the Louvre on March 28, 1809. At Compiègne from April 10, 1809 to 1822.

    M.R. 1776

  • Sculptures

    Denon wing
    Ground floor
    Michelangelo gallery
    Room 4

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