A Brief Look at two Artistic Renderings
Of Love and Lovers
The Cleveland Museum of Art is one of the finest art galleries in the nation. Boasting thousands of paintings and sculptures, the museum provides both the art lover and the casual visitor a glimpse into the minds and memories of days gone by, civilizations forgotten, and the telling and retelling of myth and legend. The museum contains an excellent selection of Baroque, Rococo, and Neo-Classical art. It is also free to the public, one of the only museums in the nation that remains so.
To meet the demands of this project, I visited the Cleveland Museum of Art on three separate occasions. On these visits, I was introduced to their impressive research library, which helped me in collecting background information for the paintings I have chosen to compare and contrast. For this purpose, Jacques Louis David’s Cupid and Psyche and Jean Lecompte du Nouy’s A Eunuch’s Dream will be presented and analyzed. Through a brief look at the artists and an analysis of both of these paintings, notions of mood and tone will be discussed as will a brief look at some speculation on the psychology captured within the image. Furthermore, this point will be reinforced by understanding how the figures are presented and what the symbols and artistic styles employed by both artists add to the overall representation.
Jacques Louis David (1744-1825) was a preeminent French Neo-Classicist. He was a distant relative of artist Francois Boucher, a painter heavily steeped in the frivolous style of the French Rococo. It is believed that Boucher may have tutored a young David until he traveled to
When Napoleon lost power in
Cupid and Psyche, executed in 1871, was the first major painting by David after his exile and is seen by some as his attempt to resume his position of leadership in the art community (de’Argencourt 194). The work presents the mythological story of the relationship between two lovers. Psyche’s beauty rivaled that of the goddess Venus who, being a jealous goddess, directed Cupid to make Psyche fall in love with the most despicable man imaginable. According to the myth, Cupid was so struck by her mortal beauty that he fell in love with her and secreted her off to his palace where he would love her every night but leave every morning before she awoke. Further, Psyche was not allowed to look upon the face of her lover, hence his coming to her in the cover of night and departing at dawn’s light. The work is representational of this tale. It captures one precise moment that familiarizes the viewer with the characters of this tale, and reinforces two main points: Psyche’s captivity at the hands of Cupid, and his departure in the early morning which provides for us a reprisal of the story’s main point --- Cupid’s need to leave at first light.
The work itself is physically prepossessing: 241cm wide and 184 cm high. A great bed that contains the prone bodies of both Cupid and Psyche dominates the foreground. The image of the lovers is life-sized and shockingly realistic. One might note the intricate details to the fingernails and knuckles of Cupid specifically. The bed is covered in rich, colorful linens of white, burnt orange, and red. The value of each color is high except for where the shadows cast themselves across the threshold of the bed at the top and on the left. There is an open window on the right which shows two mountain peaks in the distance. Between them we can note the breaking of dawn as illuminated shades of yellow, red, blue, and orange mingle together creating a sunrise effect. The terrestrial details witnessed through the window such as the scattered trees and classical Greek temple are still enmeshed in the rapidly receding darkness of Night. The window is roughly half the height of the painting and about one-third of its total length. The trees and ground are dominated by lush green colors signifying a warm summer’s night.
The bed itself is quite large and finished in gold and deep blue. David has signed his name on the sweeping post as the foot of the bed and has both dated the painting and indicated where he was when he painted it “Bruxelles”. The bed is contemporary for the times, as are the silken linens of the drapes and the forest green carpeting the bed seems to rest on.
The action within the painting is delicate and refined. Psyche’s body conforms to the elements of classical beauty that was adhered to by the Greeks: wide hips, small bust line, pale, supple flesh that is both sensuous and curvaceous. She sleeps nestled in the bosom of Cupid’s wing. Her body is prone and turned toward the viewer as she lies on her right hip; her left hand and arm sweeps up and over her head which is turned slightly away from the viewer. Her right arm lies draped across the left thigh of Cupid. Psyche is completely nude and her body is dominated by pale color tones except for the rouge of her cheeks and the golden-brown color of her hair. Her form represents classical features, classical ideals, and classical grace.
Cupid, on the other hand, is a sharp contrast to Psyche. He is seen here trying to sneak away from his lover at dawn. His left hand is grasping Psyche’s right arm, which lies across his thigh. His right arm is pressed firmly to the side of the bed and he is bearing his weight on that arm as he is slowly pushing his body up and out of the bed. While rising, he is trying to move Psyche’s arm off his body to ease his escape. Unfortunately, Cupid has several dilemmas he must deal with. First, we note that his left wing is pinned under Psyche’s sleeping body. The chances he has of extracting it without waking her seem minimal as so mush of her body covers so much of his wing. This is compounded by the fact that while Cupid’s right foot has stepped out of the bed and onto the floor, his left foot has become tangled in the bed-sheets, complicating his escape. He flashes us a quick smile looks directly at us, acknowledging our presence to his problem. His muscles and sinews are flexing throughout his upper torso and left leg indicating his gentle struggle for freedom. His flesh is intensely colored, is darker than Psyche’s, and his dark, curly hair helps to further separate his darker, more muscular form from that of Psyche.
This contrast in colors helps to segregate the forms in the work. The line is clearly defined, hearkening back to the styles present in the high Renaissance. Further, the richness of David’s colors in this specific piece has drawn comparisons between himself and the many works of Titian, who had a tendency to use color as a natural means of separating forms (CMA Bulletin 34). Furthermore, the use of oil paints helped to create a richer color upon the canvas as well as allowing David to blend colors easily with little trouble. The surface of the work is very smooth and the brush strokes of David are virtually invisible. The colors used help to establish a warm atmosphere, especially in regards to the red, burnt-orange, and gold silks of the drapery and linens. The corners of the painting are locked in receding darkness and the ambient light, perhaps provided by the rising sun or perhaps by oil lamps not present in the scene, seem to illuminate Psyche’s flesh. Further, the brilliant white of the bed sheets adds a cozy and clean feeling to the image. The near white of Psyche’s flesh marks her as more of an idealized figure, one that might be a statue of marble in some ways; the realistic flesh tones of Cupid make him much more human to us, presenting him as a clumsy, adolescent boy more than as a god. The flesh and blood of Cupid makes him an individual, not an abstract (de’Argencourt 196). The lighting in the room and outside seems very natural, not staged or theatrical – there is no drama here. The colors of the sunrise and the seeming illumination of Psyche’s body creates a comfortable image. Furthermore, the sparse use of shadow here, notably the right front leg of the bed, the descending foot of Cupid, and the shadow cast by his upraised left knee, helps to reinforce the naturalism and realism of the piece.
The composition of the work is plainly three-dimensional and lacks classical balance. The figures nearly occupy like space with Psyche being slightly behind Cupid. They both recline from left to right and their bodies make up the bulk of the image. The work utilizes open forms indicated by the spreading of the legs and arms of Cupid from his body as well as the open window on the back right. Our eyes are free to sweep the canvas and we have a tendency to start at Cupid’s face since he is making eye contact with us. From there, we might swing our gaze down along the severe, angular lines of Cupid’s body evident in the muscles of his abdomen and arms, or down the long, sweeping curves of the sleeping Psyche. The majority of the lines presented here are horizontal, evidenced by the prone body of Psyche, the semi-prone body of Cupid, the clear folds separating two mattresses on the bed, the empire style bed itself, and the receding background of the earth folding back onto itself into the horizon. These are contrasted by the diagonal lines of Cupid’s upper body, his bow that rests against the bed and the sweeping folds of the drapery. The figures create three-dimensional space by overlapping one another. The perspective is linear with our immediate line of sight is level with the heads and faces of Psyche and Cupid.
There are a number of symbols presented here. The bow and the quiver of arrows, located on the left of the image under Cupid’s leg and the linen under his torso respectively, symbolize his identity in Greek mythology. Psyche is represented by the emblematic butterfly located at the bottom center of the bed’s velvet base (Interpretations 25). There is a gray moth that appears at the top center of the work that has been misinterpreted as a butterfly for many years. The moth is, in fact, a male European Cabbage Fly. This was determined after an invertebrate zoologist copied and studied the image very closely and determined it’s true form by the way it was depicted and the time it is flying (de’Argencourt 198). The male European Cabbage Fly only flies at night and its departure towards the open window symbolizes the moment of separation for the lovers (Ibid.).
Finally, it must be noted that the colors and lines used to create both of the dominant figures are quite different. Cupid is darker, more rugged, more realistic, more angular, and more animated. Psyche is much more pale, smooth, round, idealized, soft, and subdued. They are quite literally the antithesis of one another. The work introduces a more forceful naturalism that was a departure from his much more idealized paintings at the height of his fame. The expression of Cupid is seen as a “desire to explore more complex and elusive states of personal psychology” (de’Argencourt 197). This desire has led some critics to cite this painting as one of male domination and imprisonment of a woman; a veritable psychosexual portrait of the inner mind (Ibid.). Furthermore, critics have been harsh on David because he seemingly “abandoned the typically sentimental representation of Cupid to reveal the brutal sexual nature of the god’s complex personality, at once comic, cynical, self satisfied, disturbed, cruel, and sinister” (Ibid. 197).
Jean Lecompte du Nouy (1842-1923) was a French painter who often employed “a widespread vogue for making bizarre and exotic paintings of oriental subjects, often based on literary sources” (de’Argencourt 385). His first major public success was due to an inspired painting based on the works of novelist Theophile Gautier (Ibid.). The Eunuch’s Dream was executed in 1874, two years after the critical success of the Gautier work. Like the Gautier painting, The Eunuch’s Dream is also based on a narrative source, Montesquieu’s Lettres persanes.
This novel compiles 161 fictive letters written by two Persian noblemen visiting
The story presented here by du Nouy is the tale of a white eunuch named Cosrou and his love for the harem girl Zelide. According to Monstesquieu’s text, Cosrou loved Zelide so vehemently that he asked for her hand in marriage despite his inadequacies. The wife of the noblemen to whom Zelide belonged to saw nothing wrong with the union and even joked about it (de’Argencourt 385). Du Nouy’s painting, like David’s, is representational of this tale. The painting allows the viewer to understand the point of the painting by simply identifying the various figures presented and what they represent in relation to the work’s title.
By comparison, du Nouy’s composition is much smaller than David’s Cupid and Psyche. The painting is 39 cm by 65 cm but contains as much detail as David’s much larger work. It is a three-dimensional painting that lacks classical balance. The figure of Cosrou dominates the right, lower half of the work. He lies prone, his feet lie nearer to us than his head. He reclines peacefully on brilliantly colored rugs and pillows. His sword stands behind him against a wall, his turban rests over a portion of the scabbard. Cosrou’s left hand is lying out and away from his body, his fingers are spread very wide and we may note the rings he wears upon his fingers. His right hand lazily grasps a chibouk, a thin smoking pipe for tobacco or hallucinogens. The pipe is several feet long and there are billowing plumes of light blue smoke that wafts up from the pipe’s base. Next to the pipe sits an ashtray. Cosrou is reclining on a rooftop; the sky is a rich, deep blue speckled by a handful of stars. It is a clear night; the city of
Cosrou is not alone on his rooftop. Arising from the smoke of his pipe appears the exotic form of Zelide. Her figure is made of a very light blue color and lacks a lot of physical details such as tone and musculature. Her body is very curvaceous, faint bracelets can be made out on her wrists and she carries a veil in both hands which sweeps about her body and behind her head. The veil too is made out of smoke. Zelide dominates is pictured in the middle of the work, just left of center. Zelide is more or less erect.. Adjacent to her right elbow sits a little cherubic figure in a shaving bowl. The pudgy little cherub (called a putto in the Asian world) half sits/half reclines in the shaving bowl and he holds before itself a great knife that is as big as the putto itself (de’Argencourt 385). The putto is also made of the same billowing smoke as Zelide, and a portion of her veil stretches under and beyond the shaving bowl. The only corporal entity that keeps Cosrou company is a black crane, perched on one foot on the rooftop behind Cosrou.
The rooftop Cosrou lies upon is comprised of various shades of white with flashes of blue. The rugs and the pillow he reclines on are multi-colored, though blue, red, and gold can be seen easily. The table beside Cosrou features repeating blue and white patterns in a vertical fashion. The skyline and terrain of
Differences between this and the Cupid and Psyche piece are easily seen. Physically, the work is much smaller. Secondly, the figures of the lovers do not occupy like space as they do in David’s piece. Cosrou is dressed very smartly in bright white trousers, a cream colored sash, and a dark red coat. The only way he sees or can be near the woman of his dreams is to smoke what is likely to be a hallucinogen. His eyes are lifeless, his face inanimate. Cosrou is also comprised of more horizontal lines and the use of foreshortening (as one might see in Andrea Mantegna’s The Dead Christ) create a different perspective for how the viewer sees Cosrou. He never looks at us, nor does Zelide or the putto. We are, in effect, voyeurs to Cosrou’s dream. Like Psyche, Zelide too is nude and is a mirror of Classical beauty in that she has accentuated hips and a small bust line. However, Zelide is made up of long, sweeping diagonal lines that help to initiate a semblance of action, motion, and subtle tension. She is rising as the smoke rises from the pipe; du Nouy uses very gentle curvilinear lines to represent the outline of her body and to give her the properties of billowing animation like the smoke she is born out of. Furthermore, Zelide lacks the details given to Psyche. We can only make out a rudimentary sense of her body’s physical features, including her lips and nose, the texture of her hair, black eyes and navel. While Psyche is very pale with accents to her cheeks and hair, Zelide is nearly the same hue of blue throughout her form with only the streaks of yellow to break up the monochromatic form. The long horizontals of the skyline as well as the square, squat buildings which comprise the
This painting also has taken some very obvious artistic liberties. While du Nouy based this composition on the works of Montesquieu, the painting is not completely accurate to the text. The location has been moved from
Lecompte du Nouy painted this work in oils applied to a wood panel. His form is well defined and the lines separating his figures are a bit more diffused than those of David. The edges of his figures and buildings are a bit rougher, heightening the sense of darkness and our inability to see as clearly as we might in daylight. Colors help to divide forms as well as line. The blue atmosphere of the image creates a cool, serene effect. While this is different from the bright, warm colors used by David, du Nouy’s work is no less refined, relaxed, and subtle. Shadows are evident in the foreground before Cosrou, and playing off the sides of the building. We can guess the moon to be very bright considering how dark the shadow is which covers part of the illuminated citadel. The painting style is not as crisp as the Classical master David, though that hardly makes the work less impressive. Lecompte du Nouy made the application of the pain slightly rougher on the buildings surfaces to help reinforce the idea of it being rough-hewn stone. These are not polished buildings, and the grainy surface coupled with various areas where the stone has chipped or cracked elevates the level of realism of the building and the image as a whole.
Striking differences may be marked in psychological and symbolic evaluation. Zelide is a temptress; it is she that captures the heart and soul of Cosrou. She lifts her veil to accentuate her feminine beauty only attainable to Cosrou in his dreams. While Cupid may have been the image of a dominant captor and Psyche his slave, here Cosrou is slave to Zelide due to his physical inadequacy. Thus, woman dominates man. It can be argued that this is a nightmare for Cosrou “visualized by Zelide’s little companion, who symbolizes the source of his misery. The Oriental putto does not hold a bow and arrow as attributes of love but instead holds a knife dripping with blood and sits in a barber’s bowl, references to the tools of Cosrou’s castration” (de’Argencourt 385). The handprint on the wall is a traditional Islamic talisman for averting misfortune, but what is more unfortunate than being denied that which you dream for? Even as we bear witness to the work, the diagonal motion of Zelide seems to imply she is slipping away from him. Finally, the crane itself lends more of a terrible aspect to the work. Symbolically, a flying crane is a precursor to a rise in status in Asian folklore (“Symbolism”). This crane, firmly grounded, seems to almost mock Cosrou and show that he is forever doomed to be the victim of unrequited love, never rising above his lowly status as a palace servant and never knowing love’s true touch.
Themes of love play often on the lips and hearts of artists and poets. Each has there own interpretation of what love offers its benefactors. It can seem to be a blessing and a curse at the same time. David’s Cupid and Psyche and Jean Lecompte du Nouy’s A Eunuch’s Dream paint a vivid picture both literally and figuratively of loves complex nature. Both offered different psychological profiles of who the dominant partner might be, who loves and who is loved, and how the symbols evident in either piece can help to supplement one’s understanding of the themes presented in the work. Through a study of these two works, one comes to appreciate not only the painter and his apparent image, but also the subtle undertones locked away in a color here, a shadow here, and a symbol there. Whether or not the observer of these works is an avid art lover or the casual visitor to a museum, the masterful skills of David and du Nouy create bold images that serves to engage them in a world of vibrant expressionism, but does not overwhelm with a subject too foreign to understand.
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