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The roman author Apuleius wrote in the Metamorphoses that “the fame of Psyche’s beauty was so great that strangers came in crowds to enjoy the sight”. The young girl was so beautiful that people started paying homage to her, instead of honoring Venus, the true Goddess of Beauty, who became terribly jealous. She planned to get revenge, making her fall in love with a grotesque monster, but to add insult to injury, even her son Cupid, the God of Love, fell terribly in love with her. This fact was unacceptable for a deity, considered that Psyche was just a mortal princess, and it led the unlucky couple to challenges and proves, to test the strength of their love.
The troubled love between Cupid and Psyche is a story-within-a-story that has fascinated artists from any century. Starting from the world-famous sculpture of Canova, the subject was also depicted by the French, academic painter Bouguereau in 1895. The Neoclassical artist took inspiration from the classical myth, but he decided to paint a specific moment of the story: the instant when the couple ascends in Heaven, finally together, crowning the dream of their love story.
Bouguereau portrayed Psyche and Cupid in a loving embrace. Psyche seems a beautiful and vulnerable creature, lifted in the air by her winged lover, with an ecstatic expression, halfway between bliss and surrender. The artist used delicate pinks and creams for the bodies and a striking dark purple for the cloth, that stands out very well against the shaded background.
This dreamy, intangible atmosphere and the white light in the back remember us that Psyche is dealing with her metamorphosis: she is leaving the physical realm of the mortals, to arrive in heaven with deities, to marry Cupid. The transition to her new life is also confirmed by the attributes that Bouguereau has chosen: the princess has butterfly wings, an iconography traditionally connected to immortality. On the contrary, Cupid does not have the bow and arrows that he usually threw to lovers: he has found the love of his life, he does not need them anymore!
This is one of Bouguereau's most romantic and melodramatic paintings, but it also hides controversies. The title The Abduction of Psyche could had been mistranslated from the French L'enlèvement de Psyché, obscuring the potential interpretation as The Rapture of Psyche. This hypothesis casts a shadow on Apuleius’ myth and on its representation. From this perspective, Cupid seems to possessively envelop Psyche, while the girl abandon herself in complete surrender.
But we must remember that mythology is full of light and dark, and that each myth always hides a symbolical and psychanalytical meaning. The love story between Cupid and Psyche and its vicissitudes could be interpreted as the metaphor of the eternal battle between instinct and reason, heart and brain. The marriage between Cupid, characterized by its transport, its disruptive strength, and Psyche, light as a breath, seems to represent the balance between the instinctual and the spiritual part of the human being. Love conquers all, but only if there is mediation and harmony.