Jacques-Louis David was one of art history’s great propagandists. His lifetime (1748-1825) overlapped with the last days of France’s Ancien Régime, the Revolution and the Terror, the rise and fall of Napoleon Bonaparte and the restoration of France’s monarchy. He was easily the most influential painter of his era.
After Napoleon’s fall, David went into exile in Brussels, where he took to painting erotic mythological subjects of a kind he had previously disdained. This depiction of Cupid and his lover Psyche, a star attraction at the Cleveland Museum of Art, feels almost improperly sexy. But David’s cool neoclassicism could make anything appropriate — even orgies of bloodletting.
Psyche, in Greek mythology, was a mortal girl of such extraordinary beauty that she aroused the jealousy of Venus. The goddess of love ordered her son, Cupid, to sabotage Psyche’s chance at happiness by instilling in her a passion for a depraved man. Inevitably, however, Cupid fell in love with her. He installed her in a palace where he visited her each night to make love, insisting only that she not try to look at him or discover his identity.
As if channeling the spirit of the libertines who thrived during the Ancien Régime, David chose to paint a kind of joke picture: Cupid — depicted here not as a winged cherub but as a Caravaggio-style street kid with a fit body and laborer’s tan — is trying to leave the canopied, Empire-style bed of the sexually satisfied, slumbering Psyche. He looks straight out at the viewer with a lecherous smirk as he tries to dislodge her luminously white limbs without waking her. But perhaps the joke is on him? His heel is caught in the bedsheets, and it seems certain she will be disturbed, open her eyes, see his wings, and guess his divine identity.
David seems to have based his image on a version of the myth told by the Greek poet Moschus. In that version, Cupid is described as a mischievous rogue or (as the Cleveland museum’s website puts it) “a mean-spirited brat with dark skin, flashing eyes, and curly hair.” Certainly, the god seems crassly proud of his conquest. (Other artists painting or sculpting the subject tended to show the lovers in a romantic swoon.)
In ancient Greek, Psyche means butterfly (and soul). You may already have spotted the butterfly hovering over the young couple. Another butterfly, recognized as a symbol of the freedom of the soul and mortality, forms part of the decoration of the bed’s blue-and-gold base.
Psyche is smoothly idealized, unlike Cupid with his dimpled cheek, shaved mustache and downturned eyes. It’s as if he were the mortal and she the god. She was in fact admitted, at Cupid’s pleading, to the pantheon of immortals on Olympus. (Keats, in “Ode to Psyche,” described her as the “latest born and loveliest vision far/ Of all Olympus’ faded hierarchy!”)
One of the points of continuing to revere the ancient gods in a censorious, monotheistic age was to permit people to see (and write poems about) what was otherwise forbidden. If, in the early 19th century, that meant painting hot young bodies in bed together, so be it. David was just fulfilling a commission.