Oil on canvas, 1895, by William-Adoplhe Bouguereau (1825–1905)
Poor old Psyche has been put through the ringer by the time her depiction in this ravishing painting by the French academic artist Bouguereau comes about. From an account of her by Platonicus in his ancient novel, The Golden Ass, Psyche’s immense beauty firstly evokes the jealousy of Venus who sends her interfering son Cupid to shoot her with an arrow so that she falls hopelessly in love with someone (or something) hideous. Instead, Cupid, gazing over her loveliness, carelessly grazes himself with his own arrow and, for the first time experiencing the pangs of passion himself, falls deeply for Psyche. Knowing he will incur the wrath of his mother, he beseeches the West Wind Zephyrus to usher Psyche away to a pleasure palace where he can visit and conduct his affair with her in secret. Every night he seduces her and makes love to her passionately in the dark. Sated, he falls asleep next to her leaving her to wonder on his true identity but by morning light he has slipped away. Psyche, egged on by two jealous sisters who taunt her with claims that her lover is in fact a hideous dragon-like creature, eventually cannot resist the temptation to reveal him and does so one night by shining a lamp over his body as he slumbers. She is stunned by his incredible beauty and drops the lamp, startling him. He wakes and flees, in the process clumsily tripping over his quiver of arrows and injuring himself. He hobbles back to Venus’ clutches to be maternally nursed. Psyche, forsaken, is left puzzled. So far, it all reads like the script to a B-grade Hollywood teen rom-com.
But Venus has depth: she is revealed to be a malicious and sinister figure. She subjects Psyche to a series of grueling tasks and humiliations, the last of which is to traipse through the Underworld and acquire a dose of beauty from its regnant queen, Proserpina, and bring it back to her in a box (a kind of early example of cosmetics consumerism). Psyche cannot resist opening the box but does not find beauty there, instead Stygian vapours waft over her placing her into an infernal catatonic state and keeping her imprisoned in the Underworld. Finally, restless of his mother’s infantilising coddling, Cupid regains his ardour and flies to rescue Psyche, gathering up the vapours which surround her and ushering them back into the box, thus lifting her torpor. It is at this point that he bears her up and “abducts” her towards her liberation. He carries her to an audience with Zeus where he pleads to be allowed to marry her. Zeus consents and elevates Psyche to an immortal by giving her a cup of ambrosia to drink. The two are married, Cupid’s penchant for provoking adultery and sordid liaisons is resolved, Psyche is declared the goddess of the soul, while Venus is instructed by Zeus to accept the union and bury her resentment towards her new daughter-in-law.
In psychoanalytic terms, Platonicus’ development of the root origins of the two characters can be alluded to in terms of the maturation they undergo in order to gain their own sense of individual agency: Cupid progresses from being a childish meddler in other’s affairs (an interloper, an eavesdropper, an onlooker) to experiencing first love himself (an active participant). By doing so, he also breaks maternal bondage and emerges as a man of courage and determination; a free agent. It is the ritualised quintessential embodiment of the male rite of passage theme. Psyche, meanwhile, displays stamina, endurance and determination to withstand her ordeals and elevate her position: she is the archetype for feminine drive and willpower. When viewed from within the perspective of feminist theory, however, she also personifies feminine mutability, serving as a paradigm for how the gender unity of the sisterhood of women can be negatively displaced through rivalry and envy.
From the myth of Psyche and Cupid, others have proliferated: in common lore, for instance, there are aspects apparent in The Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella, Rumpelstiltskin and The Little Mermaid. Shakespeare also made use of elements of the myth, for example in A Midsummer Night's Dream and Measure for Measure. At its classical source, it is obvious that Platonicus, despite being Roman, favoured the Greek tradition of viewing Cupid not as a sexless Augustan cherub but as the Hellenistic Eros, the god of physical love who was depicted as a beautiful adolescent flush with the prime of his masculine prowess. Hence the mythos of Eros and Psyche can be unified and presented as a Neoplatonic allegory of heterosexual love: the marriage of the erotic with the soulful.
It is this sense of unification and compatibility which is so evident in Bouguereau’s resplendent treatment. There was a renewed interest in this particular aspect of the myth which proliferated in Paris in the aftermath of the French Revolution where it became a vehicle for the repurposing of the notion of the self; a metaphor for an ascension from the mire of revolutionary conflict into the realms of a higher artistic zeal, coupled with a focused return to the ideation of romantic love. The upward trajectory of the painting’s visual pathway is clearly suggested to us by the pointed direction of Cupid’s wings as well as the tilt of his head and face as he glances skywards: his steely eyes are fixed on a celestial destination he is determined to arrive at. There is an immediate note of triumphalism which is accentuated by the fluttering animation apparent in the bold purple of the cloth which had been draped over the sleeping Psyche. Its lusciousness adds warmth to the scene and embellishes the eroticism of the two lovers’ reunion, something which is further cemented by the physical composition of their bodies.
All tension is vested in the masculine tautness of Cupid’s statuesque and sexualised physique, his left arm rigid as he clasps the supple and flaccid, softened body of Psyche towards him, the muscles in his thighs and abdomen as sturdy almost as columns. He is entirely stripped of any child-like fragility or lingering doubt. Instead, he is motivated by stern, manly resolve. Psyche crosses her arms and hands across her bosom, not to shield her (or our) modesty from her knowing lover, but in a gesture of genuine rapture: she is clutching her heart, the organ of her love and desire. Her face, meanwhile, is made to be distinctly ambiguous by Bougurereau. Her expression denotes the dreamy remnants of her recent torpor but mixed with traces of orgasmic ecstasy and relief. The way she rests her head protectively in the crook of Cupid’s neck provides an added touch of arduous sentiment, but likewise implies vulnerable surrender to Cupid’s possession. Indeed, what are contemporary feminists to make of the use of the predatory verb “abduction” in the painting’s title when “rescue” would have been far more chivalrous?
Nonetheless, Psyche is granted the wings of a butterfly to allegorize her metamorphosis from girl into woman, but also from mortal to immortal status. Cupid’s wings are depicted in angelic white, symbolising his purification and regeneration to a more noble status. The dazzling background, emblazoned with further purples and whites, suggests daybreak and the start of a new life. Finally, Cupid’s famous trademark, his bow and quiver of arrows, is entirely absent from the painting indicating that he has repented from his former miscreant habits and is content to devote himself to his one true love. His winsome humble face carries an unashamed, unabashed and repentant expression of focus and resolve, far removed from the giggling prurient lasciviousness of his prior incarnations.
The Abduction of Psyche is currently in a private collection.