Jean-Honoré Fragonard, Psyche showing her Sisters her Gifts from Cupid, 1753, National Gallery, London.
I was going to write a new post today, but it turns out I’m still in acting mode. After two weeks in Sidmouth playing three different roles in the four playlets that make up Neil Simon’s California Suite we have half a week at the New Theatre Peterborough. Thank you so much to those of you who joined us on the South Coast – and if anybody would like to see the show in Peterborough, it is only 50 minutes from London on the train (and there is a matinee at 2.30 on Saturday…). Then I will psyche myself up to get back into lecturing mode for Tuesday evening (31 August), when I will be telling the story of Cupid and Psyche, illustrated with art from across the ages (most notably, of course, the decoration of the Villa Farnesina by the workshop of Raphael). Then the following week, on Monday 6th September at 6pm I will be talking about Two Swedish Masters – Anders Zorn and Carl Larsson – both of whom deserve to be better known. Those of you who were with me during lockdown 1 will have read my lengthy musings on the story of Psyche – but as an introduction (and while I’m still trying to get my head in gear) – I thought I’d repeat a post from April 30th last year… So here is Psyche showing her Sisters her Gifts from Cupid by Fragonard.
The story of Psyche is a wonderful one, and sufficiently long to be shared over a couple of days… It is peppered across Greek and Roman myth, but the version that is best known isn’t myth at all, but part of a late Roman novella, The Golden Ass, written by Apuleius in the second half of the second century AD. It tells of a man, Lucius, who, as the result of a freak magic-related accident, is turned into a donkey (if you think you’ve heard this before, yes, this is probably the origin of the Bottom sub-plot in A Midsummer Night’s Dream). He wanders the world trying to regain human form, and on his journeys hears various stories, which are recounted as part of the novella. The longest and most thoroughly told tale is the story of Cupid and Psyche, which became a particular favourite in the Renaissance. It is illustrated in full by Giulio Romano in the Palazzo Te in Mantua, and Raphael started a cycle in the Farnesina in Rome, although sadly it was never completed. I will come back to both, though, as well as throwing in other interpretations as the mood takes me!
Psyche was a mere mortal, but as a girl, was said to be more beautiful than Venus herself, the Goddess of Beauty. She was so beautiful, in fact, that people started worshipping her instead of Venus. Gods never like a threat to their status, and Venus was no exception.
She sent her son Cupid to make Psyche very unhappy, by making her fall in love with a monster (another feature of the story which is echoed in the Dream, perhaps?), but when he saw her he understood what all the fuss was about. Leaning closer to get a better look, he accidentally pricked himself with one of his own arrows, and fell madly in love with her. Knowing that his mother would have been furious, he knew he had to get her out of the way, so he got his good friend Zephyr, the wind (who we have already seen in Picture Of The Day 8 and POTD 37) to pick her up and carry her off to his castle. Once there, she was brought food by invisible servants, played music by invisible musicians, and showered with gifts from who knows where. He came to her at night, in the dark… and the earth moved. Clearly she was happy to be there, and he told her that she could stay, on condition that she never tried to find out his name or see what he looked like. This suited Psyche, although she was a bit concerned that her sisters might be worried about where she’d got to, so she persuaded Cupid, much against his better judgement, to get Zephyr to bring them to the castle so they could see that she was alright.
On arrival she shows them all the gifts she has been given – some of these are scattered on the ground: a basket of roses, tipped up for inspection by the sister in red, and in front of that an elaborate golden bowl, with turquoise fabric lying in and around it. There is a pipe and a tambourine – evidence of the magical music, perhaps – and leaning against the frame of Fragonard’s painting is another frame, an oval one, with a blue ribbon tied onto the loops at the back so that it can be hung. We will never know what this is – a mirror, perhaps? Or a painting? Also lying on the ground is a quiver full of arrows – this should be a clue. Psyche is not the sort to go out hunting (unlike Diana and her virgin nymphs), so these must belong to Cupid. If only she had noticed them, and stopped to think what they were doing there!
She seems to have been given a vast amount of fabric. One sister, blonde, who is facing us, holds up a length that is a very pale lemon yellow and white, with a sky blue border, while the redhead with her back to us in shadow clasps what appears to be cloth of gold. The fabric pours across the floor and over the step on which this woman is kneeling. As this woman is in the left foreground, and in shadow against a lighter background, she should really be a repoussoir, encouraging us to look further into the image, but she looks off to her left, and directs our attention away from Psyche, the focus of the story. I can only imagine that Fragonard is implying that these bolts of brocade are spread far across the floor, way beyond the edge of the painting.
Fine fabrics would appear to be the stuff of the sisters’ dreams, they are so well attired themselves. The primrose yellow of the standing blonde woman is one of my favourite colours in any painting – don’t ask me why – but Fragonard makes it ring out by surrounding it with different yellows and turquoises. Despite this, there is no doubt that Psyche is the most important person here. Her brilliant white drapery – it could hardly be called it a robe, as it barely covers her, despite its length and breadth – shines out between the shimmering yellow and the deep red. She is the only person seated, her feet resting on a splendid cylindrical cushion, in turquoise velvet, with gold tassels. Her hair is being coiffed by one of her more attentive sisters, who looks over her shoulder to see a swarm of amoretti – ‘little loves’ – bringing yet more jewelry and roses. It is almost as if they are embodiments of the rich perfumes emanating from the large, gold censer on the far right.
Her chair is elaborately carved and gilded, and next to the cherub’s head at the end of the arm is a cushion in delicate pink, with feathery gold embroidery appliqued freely and plentifully as if it were the cherub’s wings. All this appears to be taking place in a fantasy setting – well it is rather fantastic! A stage set, perhaps, or the courtyard of a grand palace, with a terrace that has been strewn with rich materials for a tête-à-tête – en plein air – as it were. Fragonard has himself changed his mind about how it is represented, as there is a ghost-like vase hovering above right of the two standing sisters. This is what is known as a pentimento – or change of mind – which has, through the aging of the paint, become visible again.
What do Psyche’s sisters feel about all the attention she has been getting? Well, flying through the sky is a woman with snakes in her left hand and a flaming torch in her right, looking down at the two standing sisters. This is Eris, the Goddess of Discord – the Goddess of Arguments. I’ve always assumed that she has the snakes to freak people out, and the torch to heat up the arguments. Of course, the sisters were jealous! They wanted to know who he was, this wonderful lover, and what did he look like? Psyche couldn’t answer. As he only came at night, she had never seen him. When they pointed out to her that he could be a monster, she lost the calm that she is so clearly enjoying in this painting, and got into an argument (Eris always gets her way in the end). She then told Zephyr to take them away again. But what should she do next? Well – you can look up the ‘Psyche’ archive, or join me for the talk on Tuesday!