Anthony van Dyck, Cupid and Psyche, 1639-40, Royal Collection Trust, Kensington Palace, London.
Well, I couldn’t just leave her lying there, eternally asleep… To be honest, according to Apuleius, Psyche thought she was collecting Persephone’s beauty to take to Venus, and that is what she wanted to see – but it turned out to be ‘sleep’ after all. And Cupid, who had been at home all the time, recovering from the wound of the burning oil, finally crept out, only to find her, as if dead, on the road.
And that is precisely how Anthony van Dyck painted her – she could only look more dead if she were paler, I suspect. This painting is not what we, in the UK, expect from Van Dyck – he was, after all, one of the great portraitists. What our ancestors wanted from him was his ability to make them look grander, nobler and more beautiful than perhaps they really were. I say our ancestors – not mine – I’m not that posh. And so this is the only mythological painting that survives from his time as a court artist for King Charles I. It may have been part of a series of paintings illustrating the story of Cupid and Psyche, to which Rubens and Jordaens would also have contributed. The series was commissioned for the Queen’s House in Greenwich, but was never completed. It might have been painted for something else, though, but whatever the purpose, it is a fantastic painting, and should be better known. It is also potentially one of the most outrageous paintings you’ll see, but we’ll come to that later. At first glance, it is a straightforward telling of the story, even if, like Claude (POTD 46), it is almost more of a landscape painting. It’s a curious format, which might be related to its intended location, but as we don’t know what that was, we’re left in the dark. Nevertheless, more than half of the painted surface is taken up with trees and sky. And, like Claude again, these trees are helping to tell the story. One is entirely alive, just like Cupid, and it grows towards him, while the other, positioned as if emerging from Psyche’s body, is profoundly dead. Whereas she is all stillness and weight, he is fleeting and light, flying in to find her, his foot barely touching the ground. It is a wonderful painting of contrasts.
In his left hand Cupid holds his bow, although he has abandoned his quiver, full of arrows, on the floor. Psyche lies on the ground, with a gold casket (rather than the white vase we saw yesterday) resting under her right hand, open and empty. This used to contain ‘sleep’. Her left hand rests on her thigh, holding down the white cloth essential to stop this sensuous image descending to the obscene. Her sky blue robe (or cloak? – it’s not entirely clear what this is) acts as a blanket beneath her. It is clasped in an entirely blatant failure to cover her breasts, and is painted with van Dyck’s very best silk technique, shiny and slick and airy. ‘Psyche’ means ‘soul’ in Greek, by the way – I don’t think I’ve mentioned that before – so airiness is apt. Cupid, on the other hand, is entirely concerned with love – or lust – represented by the colour red, just like Charity (POTD 52). This explains the colour of the cloth he is ‘wearing’, which is every bit as alive as he – while hers is equally dead. His nudity is surprising – it is not what we expect from van Dyck (after all, the portraits of the great and the good have the most fantastic fabrics and finery– you should see the ones he painted in Genoa!) but it does exhibit a remarkable ability to paint the human body. And this particular subject allows him – given that he has taken some license – to show off both male and female nudes. Having said that, Cupid’s ‘modesty’ is miraculous – the red drapery flies out behind him, curving down away from the wings with a splendidly sculptural flourish, then wraps around his body to cover his left thigh, only to appear behind his legs, the final flourish backwards echoing his extended right leg. And yet, there is no hint to explain how it’s held up.
He tilts slightly away from us, so that his right shoulder obscures his chin – but we see his mouth, just open in awe, and we understand his look of love and concern. The curls of his blond hair flick back in the breeze caused by his descent. His wings have the whitest of feathers, which fade away with a magical translucency. There are those who say that this painting was never finished. They may well be right, but the delicacy here is superb.
And yet, let’s think about this again. Cupid’s right hand reaches out towards Psyche with a gesture, which, if this were a Renaissance painting, would look like a greeting. The Renaissance is relevant here, given his debt to Titian – just look at her legs and that white drapery. But in a Renaissance context, how would you interpret this image? It could so easily be something different. A man with wings has flown in to greet a beautiful woman in blue and white. If it weren’t for the nudity, and were she not asleep, this could be an Annunciation. And of course Charles I – one of the greatest collectors of art, with a Roman Catholic wife – must have known that. To paint Cupid and Psyche as if they were Gabriel and Mary would make a sensuous story blasphemously titillating. And my suspicion is that that would suit Charles I down to the ground. It’s entirely outrageous!
Earlier, I said that the tree behind Psyche is ‘profoundly dead’. However, there is something growing from its base. New life, maybe. All is not lost.
Looking back to Giulio Romano’s image with which I finished yesterday, you might be able to see that Cupid is holding one of his arrows in his left hand, and he looks as if he is about to tap Psyche on the back with it. ‘Eternal Sleep’ is not something that even a minor deity would have to worry about – it is a supernatural quality after all. On seeing his love lying there, as if dead, he forgave her, gathered up the sleep, put it back in the box and shut the lid. Don’t ask me how. Then he tapped her on the back with his arrow and woke her up – which of course meant that her love for him was renewed. But will they live happily ever after? Not if mum gets her way…