Sculpture

Masterpiece of the Week: Cupid & Psyche by Antonio Canova

Montaine Dumont 16 May 2021 min Read

A true gem of virtuosity, Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss is a marble scupture made between 1787 and 1793 by Antonio Canova. The sculptor portrayed the loving embrace of two major characters from Greek mythology: Love, or Cupid in Latin, and the soul, Psyche.

Antonio Canova, Psyche Revived by Cupid's Kiss, between 1787 and 1793, Louvre, Paris, France.
Antonio Canova, Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss, 1787–1793, Louvre, Paris, France.
Photo by Kimberly Vardeman via Wikipedia Commons (CC BY 2.0).

The Beautiful Psyche or the Immortality of the Soul

A prophecy announces that the young Princess Psyche will grow up to be more ravishingly beautiful than Aphrodite herself. The latter, furious, orders her son, Cupid, to make Psyche fall madly in love with the ugliest being in the world. Though he was prepared to carry out his mission, Cupid himself instead falls in love with Psyche. He sends an oracle to the young woman’s father, asking him to keep her safely hidden. Locked in a luxurious palace, Psyche receives a visit from Cupid every night. However, she refrains from looking at his face, in order to avoid knowing his identity. One night, Psyche breaks down and watches her sleeping lover by the light of a lantern. When a drop of hot oil falls on the young god’s skin, he flies away.

Psyche, in search of her lover, becomes Aphrodite’s slave. Aphrodite orders Psyche to get a vial from Hades that she must not open. Psyche cannot resist and opens the bottle. Breathing in the vapors, she falls into a deadly sleep that only Cupid can break. Cupid kisses her and brings her back to life. Canova’s sculpture captures this moment. Cupid, recognizable by his quiver and arrows, rests on the rock where his beloved lies unconscious.

Antonio Canova, Psyche Revived by Cupid's Kiss, between 1787 and 1793, Louvre, Paris, France.
Antonio Canova, Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss, 1787-1793, Louvre, Paris, France. Detail.

Antonio Canova and His Art

As a major sculptor of the end of the 18th century, Antonio Canova enjoyed significant European influence. Born in the province of Treviso – at the time, a possession of the Republic of Venice – he entered the Academy of Venice as a painter and sculptor. In 1779, he moved to Rome and quickly found himself at the head of a large workshop visited by many travelers.

Canova developed a sober style, influenced by his numerous studies of antique art. He produced neoclassical art, where his characters have refined forms and calm attitudes. The artist places great importance on line and drawing, the clear contours of which are found in his sculptures. Theseus and the Minotaur, completed in 1782, is the first sculpted group in which Antonio Canova developed this sober style, inspired by the illustrious Torso of the Belvedere in the Vatican.

Antonio Canova, Theseus and the Minotaur, 1782, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, England, UK.
Antonio Canova, Theseus and the Minotaur, 1782, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, England, UK.

A Thoughtful Composition

It was during his visit to Herculaneum that Canova found the inspiration to create the marble Cupid and Psyche sculpture. He copied a Roman painting discovered there, with a man crouching and leaning over a reclining woman, who stretches her arms towards him. The marriage of these two positions allows the sculptor to create a stable pyramid shape for his block of marble, with the legs of the figures as the base and the tip of the wing forming the top of the structure. Antonio Canova succeeds in combining a solid composition and a dynamism that gives visual strength to the work. The piece has a natural movement to it, from Cupid’s right foot to the embrace of his arms that lift Psyche, and finally to the vertical extension of his wings.

Antonio Canova, Psyche Revived by Cupid's Kiss, 1787-1793, Louvre, Paris, France. Detail.
Antonio Canova, Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss, 1787-1793, Louvre, Paris, France. Detail.

Canova or the Art of Bringing Marble to Life

The subject of this sculpted group is ancient; however, its form deviates considerably from it. Whereas the Greeks and Romans sculpted bodies, emphasizing anatomy and muscles, Canova took the part of purifying the body. The fluidity of the line, the grace, and the softness of the anatomy of slender bodies have replaced the ancient exaltation of the musculature. This style puts Canova’s art in the neoclassical movement of the second half of the 18th century.

Antonio Canova, Psyche Revived by Cupid's Kiss, between 1787 and 1793, Louvre, Paris, France.
Antonio Canova, Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss, 1787-1793, Louvre, Paris, France. Detail.

In order to best render the flexibility and grace of the lovers’ bodies, Antonio Canova uses various techniques on his block of marble. The marble grain is not the same from one place to another; for example, compare the drape over Psyche and the rock. For both bodies, Canova uses ever finer rasps, giving an impression of life and softness of the flesh. Traces of rasps are still visible on the faces. Likewise, the wings of Love are worked meticulously, allowing the golden rays of the sun to be seen through the stone.

These techniques show that Canova was, quite simply, magistral.

Antonio Canova, Psyche Revived by Cupid's Kiss, between 1787 and 1793, Louvre, Paris, France.
Antonio Canova, Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss, between 1787 and 1793, Louvre, Paris, France. Detail.