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Psyche and Cupid
© 2001 RMN / Gérard Blot
The young princess Psyche is both surprised and aroused by the first kiss of Cupid, who is invisible to her. The antique myth depicted here is a love story but also a metaphysical allegory: Psyche is a personification of the human soul. The work, painted in 1798 by Gérard, a former pupil of David, illustrates tneoclassicism's evolution towards sensuality and a certain formal abstraction.
A metaphysical love story
Psyche, the princess whose beauty aroused the jealousy of Venus, is loved by the goddess' son, Cupid. Gérard shows Cupid kissing the young woman's forehead, unseen by her. Surprised and aroused, Psyche is shyly crossing her arms over her naked breasts. This is the first pang of love, the beginning of a love story that would take Psyche and Cupid through all kinds of trials and tribulations before their marriage on Mount Olympus. The myth is told by the Roman writer Apuleius in the Golden Ass, then by Jean de la Fontaine in The Loves of Psyche and Cupid. The theme was depicted by a great many artists, from antiquity to the neoclassical period, at which time it was hugely popular (Canova's Eros Awakening Psyche, Prud'hon's Abduction of Psyche, Musée du Louvre). The myth was both a love story and a metaphysical allegory, since Psyche is the Greek word for "soul". The scene painted by Gérard therefore symbolizes the Neoplatonic theme of the union of the human soul and divine love. The artist has painted a butterfly hovering over the young woman's head: the insect's name in ancient Greek is also "psyche" and symbolizes the soul.
A work appreciated by the "primitives"
Gérard, who trained in David's studio, painted this canvas when he was still young. He showed it at the 1798 Salon, where it received a mixed reception. Many commentators were bothered by the evolution of neoclassicism which they saw in the work. The biggest enthusiasts were certain pupils of David, who called themselves the "primitives" and advocated a return to archaic esthetics. Ingres, who was close to the group, thought the painting was one of the most beautiful of the French School. But real success for Gérard came later, when he was appointed portraitist to the Imperial court.
Porcelain statues in a landscape
The dual aspects in the myth of Psyche which Gérard is depicting explain the work's composite nature. It is a subtle blend of coldness and sensuality, as is Canova's figure group, Eros Awakening Psyche, sculpted five years earlier. The sensuality of Gérard's two figures stems from their nudity and especially from Cupid's pose. The simple, purified forms of their anatomy exude a certain coldness. Before Ingres (The Valpinçon Bather, 1808, Musée du Louvre), Gérard had opted for abstracted contours and a "porcelain" treatment. His Psyche and Cupid have been compared to antique cameos and Sèvres biscuit statuettes - a far cry from the monumentality of David's Oath of the Horatii (Musée du Louvre). His ivory-skinned lovers stand out against the blue and green landscape background, also purified in treatment.
BibliographyLang Paul, Regards sur Amour et Psyché à l'âge néoclassique, catalogue d'exposition, Carouge, musée, 1994, Zurich, Institut suisse pour l'étude de l'art, 1994, p. 101-105.
Michel Régis, "L'art des Salons", Aux armes et aux arts. Les arts et la Révolution 1789-1799, Paris, Adam Biro, 1985, p. 75-76.
François GÉRARD (Rome, 1770 - Paris, 1837)
Psyche and Cupid
Salon of 1798
H. 1.86 m; W. 1.32 m
Acquired in 1822
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