This painting illustrates an episode from the classical myth of Cupid and Psyche, which was originally told by Apuleius in his 'Golden Ass'. It is an early work by Fragonard, executed in 1753, the year after he had won the Prix de Rome and before his first Italian visit. An immediate success, it was exhibited with other paintings at Versailles in 1754, but later passed into obscurity with an attribution to Carle van Loo. At some date it was cut down along the top and left sides.
Fragonard's work is probably based on La Fontaine's version of the fable. After falling in love with Psyche, Cupid had visited her only at night, forbidding her to look upon him. In the painting, Psyche shows her two sisters the gifts she has received from her lover, and moved by jealousy - a Fury appears in the sky above the sisters - they persuade her to uncover Cupid's identity and thus wreck her happiness.
The painting shows the emergence of Fragonard's more elegant style from the manner established by Boucher, whose pupil he had been. In many details it derives from sketches made by Boucher in 1737 for a series of tapestries illustrating this story, but there is more movement in Fragonard's painting and his colours are sharper.
Miranda Hinkley: When the 18th-century French painter Fragonard exhibited a new picture for king and court at Versailles in 1754, it was an immediate hit. But over time, the Rococo style and heavy sensuality of his painting – entitled 'Psyche showing her Sisters her Gifts from Cupid' – fell out of favour; indeed, the work was so little valued, its origins were eventually lost. For many years it was attributed to a minor painter, Carle van Loo, and mistakenly believed to depict other mythological scenes. Only in 1977 was the picture’s true identity revealed, as I discovered when I met up with historian Jacqui Ansell, who began by explaining how the mystery was finally solved.
Jacqui Ansell: Well, it was the presence of all these women who look so similar they must be sisters that meant that one rather clever art historian looked at this painting again and realised that the story must be Psyche and her sisters. And if it was that famous story, from this time period, it must surely be by Fragonard. The story begins, I suppose, with Psyche, a woman who is so beautiful that she made the goddess of love and beauty jealous, and Venus, the goddess of love, was so jealous that she said to Psyche that she was going to marry a monster. Well, Psyche didn’t mind too much about this, she was very brave and she allowed herself to be led up to a mountain top to meet her fate or to be carried off and eaten by wild beasts. Well, as she was there, tied up on this mountain, well who should fly over but Cupid? And he looked down and he saw her and something happened to him that had never happened before. He fell in love.
Miranda Hinkley: So it’s usually him making other people fall in love by shooting off his arrows at them, but in this case, he finally succumbed.
Jacqui Ansell: Exactly. And he got the West Wind to carry her off to his enchanted castle, where anything she wanted magically appeared. If she wanted gifts of jewellery or clothes it was brought to her by invisible servants. Well, she was quite happy for a while, but she was rather lonely, but that evening, Cupid came and revealed himself to her, well in words at least, because he said to her that all of these gifts could be hers if only she obeyed him and didn’t ever look at him. Well, she thought that was a fair price to pay, and every night he’d come and he’d lay down beside her and they’d get to know each other and eventually – as the children tell me when I tell this story – they got married.
And it was all going very well, but Psyche had several sisters so she invited all her sisters around and they came and they came to admire her gifts and no sooner had they started to admire them than they started to conspire amongst themselves and they started to feel rather jealous and they said to her, ‘Psyche, we think your husband has tricked you. We think he is a terrible monster – why else would he not want you to look at him? We think he is a terrible monster and we think that you should look at him and we think that if he is a monster, you should kill him’. Well, this is a very, very difficult decision she’s suddenly got to make – a moral dilemma. Should she look at him or not?
So what she does next of course is the next time she lays down beside him, curiosity gets the better of her, she lights a lamp, and she looks at this beautiful sleeping form next to her. She doesn’t mind that he’s got wings, so technically actually he is a monster.
Miranda Hinkley: But he’s so handsome it doesn’t matter.
Jacqui Ansell: Exactly! And she’s in ecstasy as she stares down at this sleeping form, but as she looks at him, a drop of oil drops from the lamp, lands on his shoulder, burns him, wakes him up! He wakes up, he looks at her looking at him, and he knows that she’s disobeyed him. And at that instant, the whole beautiful castle and all the gifts disappear.
So what are our clues that this is the real explanation for this story? Well, Cupid’s left his calling card – you see that quiver full of arrows we noticed earlier? We’ve got emblems of love, we’ve got the flowers that we saw earlier, and of course, most importantly, we’ve got the goddess Eris, the goddess of discord, a personification of the jealousy that the sisters are feeling. And in the background it looks as if this whole vision, this beautiful enchanted castle, is about to disappear. Well, all of those associations make this a very important painting. But how did such a wonderful, sensuous, sensual painting get lost to history and art history?
Miranda Hinkley: And particularly a painting that had been seen and admired by the king…
Jacqui Ansell: Well, in fact, of course, in the turbulent times of the late 18th century that may very well be one of the keys to its downfall, because as Rococo and its frivolity and its associations with the ancient regime – as those, the owners of the paintings, were swept away by the French Revolution and this new classical style, Fragonard’s work went out of favour. It was so out of favour, that his most famous painting, 'The Swing', that you might remember from the Wallace Collection, was actually offered to the Louvre in the 1870s, I think it was. They didn’t want it, and that is how Richard Wallace was able to buy it for the Wallace Collection and that is how it resides in London today.
So this is the kind of painting you either love, for its sensual and sensuous nature, its rosy cheeks of the cherubs fore and aft – we’ve even noticed the rosy ears and the rosy shoulders and the rosy backs – it’s a very enticing painting, but you either love it or you loathe it, but we’re very lucky I think to have it in the National Gallery.
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Thanks to Jacqui Ansell.
From The National Gallery Podcast: Episode Thirty Five, September 2009