The story of Psyche as related in 'The Golden Ass' (IV-VI) by Apuleius tells how Cupid falls in love with Psyche but conceals his identity from her, visiting her only at night. Fearing he is an evil magician, she looks at him, although forbidden to do so. Cupid then abandons her. The moment shown by Claude, however, may be before Psyche has encountered Cupid, when, following her salvation from danger by the West Wind, she was 'qualifying the troubles and thoughts of her restless mind'. Alternatively, it may be after she has been left by her two sisters who attempted to persuade Psyche to murder her beloved.
The picture was painted in 1664 for the Roman aristocrat, Lorenzo Onofrio Colonna. It influenced John Keats's 'Ode to a Nightingale' (1819).
Jay Griffiths: The character of Psyche is to me, the character of someone who is half in love with the enchantment of love, with the force of Eros, and so half of her – it’s as if her body language… with her left half, she’s kind of sitting and waiting, she’s like Rodin’s 'The Thinker'; with her right half she’s just ready to run – it’s a kind of ‘should I stay or should I go?’ And I think also in the balance of the picture, there is something sort of enraptured about the brightness and the brilliance and the radiance of the sun and the sky and at the same time, you know, the gloom and the darkness and the shadow – that terrible undertow of anxiety or nervousness or vulnerability or fear within it.
But it’s also that Psyche herself is in this landscape which has aided her story, which is also a sort of beautiful pun within – you know, probably an unintended pun, but it’s still to our ears a pun nonetheless because it’s called 'Landscape with Psyche' – because you could say that the landscape itself has psyche within it, the landscape is ‘en-minded’. There’s a point in the story where she is rescued by the west wind, which picks her up from a mountain top and gently, gently drops her into the sweet and gentle valleys. There’s another point where, when she’s devastated by the loss of Eros, she tries to commit suicide. The river refuses to allow her to do it; the river throws her out, so it’s as if the landscape is ‘en-minded’. The landscape has psyche by which it is operating and choosing and aiding and helping. So it’s as if all the way through the story there’s an enchantment, not only in love, and the Enchanted Castle, but there is also an enchantment in nature as everything is alive, as if it’s animated with mind, with psyche.
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Thanks to author Jay Griffiths.
From The National Gallery Podcast: Episode Forty, February 2010