Day 46 – Psyche III

Claude, Landscape with Psyche outside the Palace of Cupid (‘The Enchanted Castle’), 1664, National Gallery, London.

So… Psyche has done the one thing she was supposed not to do, and has tried to find out who her mystery lover really is (if you missed the first parts of the story, head back to Picture Of The Day 43 & 44).  She has learnt that it is none other than Cupid, the God of Love, son of Venus. And whatever her feelings were in the face of this revelation, he was furious that she had gone against his will. Again, I can’t remember exactly what Apuleius says in The Golden Ass, but I’ve always assumed that Cupid would probably take the quickest route available to get away: he just flew straight out of the window. But then, not wanting to lose out, Psyche grabbed hold of his legs, and was dragged out of the window with him. This would then be followed by a rather ungainly and inelegant scene in which he tries to shake her off by flying up and down, backwards and forwards, until she can’t hang on any longer, and finally lets go, only to end up on the ground, outside the castle, all on her own.

Claude, 1604/5? – 1682 Landscape with Psyche outside the Palace of Cupid (‘The Enchanted Castle’) 1664 Oil on canvas, 87.1 x 151.3 cm NG6471

And this is exactly where Claude paints her, in what is one of his most dismal paintings – in terms of mood, that is, not quality. Her isolation is emphasized by the fact that she really is entirely on her own, a few animals at some distance, and apart from a couple of tiny yachts on the far side of the bay, the only other people who are visible are two men in a rowing boat just off the coast. She had everything, and now she has nothing. She sits there, with her chin on her hand – the ultimate pose of thought, contemplation and melancholy. Above her looms the vast mass of the Castle, on a rocky promontory that reaches out into the sea.

I used to think that there was no entrance to this castle – which would be perfect for Cupid, as then the only way to get in or out would be by flying – so I was a little disappointed, on zooming in for this detail, to see that there is a grand, wooden door at the base of the rectangular entrance wing. This would appear to be a High Renaissance addition to a medieval castle, which stretches out above the cliffs with battlements on top of round turrets and a circular keep. Architecturally, Claude was quite a magpie.  He headed out into the countryside – the campagna around Rome – to draw ruins and trees, and wandered around the city, looking at buildings ancient and modern, and then went back to his studio to paint entirely imaginary landscapes. The nickname of this painting is The Enchanted Castle – and it is a notable presence, another character in the narrative. It combines elements taken from ancient structures like the Castel Sant’Angelo (classical in origin, but rebuilt across the centuries), and grand palaces inspired by the architecture of Michelangelo. The doors of the palace are framed by four tall bases. These support pilasters which reach to the top of the building, passing through the two upper stories of the building. Any column or pilaster which goes through more than one level is known as a ‘Giant Order’, an architectural feature used by Michelangelo to great effect on the palaces of the Capitoline Hill, and on St Peter’s Basilica, for example. Above the doorway, there is a window with a balcony, and on either side are niches with sculptures. The same units appear on the next story up, and above that there is a massive entablature, reminiscent of the one Michelangelo designed for the Palazzo Farnese (although that doesn’t have the same balustrade and obelisks). 

Claude is hailed as one of France’s great artists, which has always intrigued me, because he wasn’t actually French. He is one of relatively few artists we refer to almost exclusively by their first names: Claude. He did have a family name, Gellée, but that is hardly ever used. He also has a nickname, ‘Le Lorrain’, because he was born and grew up in the Duchy of Lorraine, which didn’t become part of France until 1766, 84 years after Claude died. And even since then it hasn’t always been French, as it was, for a while, a part of Germany. So he wasn’t French to start with, and, in any case, he didn’t spend long in Lorraine. He certainly didn’t paint there. He was born in 1604 or 5, and then headed off to Germany when he was orphaned in 1612. Not long after that he moved to Rome, where he was first employed as a pastry chef (which should make him my favourite artist), only to be taught painting by Agostino Tassi, his employer. He visited Naples, and Nancy, and settled in Rome permanently in 1628. That is where all his work was executed – he was basically an Italian artist. He was also one of the very first to work predominantly in landscape. However, it seems that hills and trees on their own were rarely seen as a sufficiently interesting subject for art, and so most of the time the landscapes are part of a narrative. In this case, the Story of Psyche – although at first glance the story itself doesn’t seem to take up much of the picture surface. Without Psyche looking miserable in the bottom left, this could be any coastline, with any imaginary castle. It is only her presence that tells us that this is Cupid’s castle. 

But that is only how it seems at first glance. After all, her mood, the mood of melancholy, pervades the entire picture – she is miserable and so is the weather. In the words of the poet,

Don’t know why
There’s no sun up in the sky
Stormy Weather
Since my man and I ain’t together…

This is what John Ruskin called the Pathetic Fallacy – the erroneous idea that things in nature share the same emotions as the humans who are experiencing them. Artists are especially guilty of falling into this error, as Ruskin saw it, when painting the weather.  But that is precisely what Claude is doing – indeed, it was one of his great strengths.

Psyche herself may only take up a small amount of the picture surface, but the entire painting takes on her mood. He does this through the use of colour and tone – everything here is muted and grey, no bright colours, no strong contrasts, nothing lively or energetic. Given that Psyche saw Cupid by the light of a lamp, and in the painting it is now relatively light, although not exactly bright, it must be dawn. Or rather, shortly after dawn, as the sun itself can be seen just above the tree to the left of the castle, at the same level as the entablature at top of the entrance wing. It is pale and silvery, as if it lacks the energy – or even the will – to shed any more light upon the scene. Claude was one of the first to show the sun itself in his paintings, and he uses its light to unify his paintings and to tell the story: the light creates the mood.  The part of the story he is telling here is one of disillusionment, of failed enterprise, and of hope thwarted. But this mood also arises from Pysche’s realization that she truly does love Cupid. What can she do about that? It is at this point in the story that she makes the worst decision possible. She decides to ask Venus if she knows where Cupid is…

Published by drrichardstemp

I talk about art...

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