David made a career revitalizing well-known stories and allegories. From the beginning of his career, David transformed shopworn subjects into works of startling originality. In David’s masterful hands, familiar themes, such as the Death of Socrates, attain drama that few have achieved.
In David’s large paintings based on history, myth, and legend, he simultaneously imparts a grandeur and intimacy that is unique.
The Cleveland Museum of Art owns one of David’s works on a well-known theme, Cupid and Psyche. Psyche and Cupid (or Amor or Eros) are among the most well-known characters from antiquity. Their oft-told story can be summed up briefly:
Cupid, busy with his usual mischief, is sent by the jealous goddess Venus to punish the young maiden, Psyche, for being more beautiful than Venus herself. But Cupid falls in love with the girl instead and plots to have Psyche for himself. Through subterfuge and other plot twists, Psyche ends up isolated and alone when a stranger, Cupid, comes to her at night. Careful not to reveal his identity (for fear of Venus), he convinces the maid to accept him. So begins a happy period during which Cupid visits Psyche every night and leaves before dawn before Psyche can discover his identity. Psyche comes to look forward to the visits and longs to know the identity of the mysterious visitor.
With the help of her jealous sisters, Psyche lays a trap for the visitor and sees him for the first time. She immediately falls deeply in love. But Cupid, outraged at the subterfuge, flees. This begins a period of suffering and trial for the lovesick Psyche as she tries to find her lost love. After many trials and tribulations, the two are reunited after Cupid brokers a deal with Jupiter. Cupid promises to leave off his adultery-making mischief whenever Jupiter needs him to procure a girl for him. Cupid and Psyche live happily ever after. Their son is named Voluptas–‘pleasure.’
This story has been told since ancient times in many ways by artists, poets, and playwrights. It fascinates us because it combines eroticism with innocence and thus becomes the perfect metaphor for love. It was a trendy theme during David’s lifetime. David’s contemporaries frequently emphasized the erotic aspects of the tale. David’s contemporary Canova sculpted the magnificent erotic masterpiece Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss in 1793, 24 years before David addressed the subject in 1817.
As the 19th century progressed, artists deemphasized the erotic. By the time Bouguereau painted this treatment, Cupid and Psyche represent innocent, child-like love. This is an especially saccharine and sentimental rendition. Bouguereau is a painter of immense power, but paintings like this one downgrade his reputation for me. (Don’t get me wrong, he’s a much greater artist than the Undergrad’s Big Book of Art History will have you believe, but even in his best work, he’s no David.)
In Cupid and Psyche, David’s many virtues are displayed in abundance. His style, as always, is straightforward and efficient. The play of light and form is a delight to the eye. As a formal design, the painting is very strong. As always in David’s paintings, the details do not detract from the overall theme.
Now, after heaping praise on David, I have to admit that this painting falls below his usual standard. In a too-close imitation of Titian, a landscape punctuates the narrow space and lets air into the narrow room. Air but no light. The figures are encased in an interior space, making the timidly painted (for David) landscape uninteresting. It appears to be an afterthought, which is shocking given how thoughtful and confident his designs normally are.
More serious, in this instance, David’s originality leads him astray. Here we see Cupid as a smarmy, smug teenager smirking over his conquest and ready to snap a selfie. Cupid once again escapes punishment at the hands of Venus or (perhaps worse!) Psyche’s father and is up to his usual mischief.
I like this painting and appreciate its originally. For a painter, it’s a great resource for study. Its strengths overpower its failings–but barely. Instead of the treatment amplifying the theme into something greater, here things are disjointed. This painting fails in a way that only paintings by great artists can fail.