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Psyché et l'Amour (Cupid and Psyche), a monumental carved marble figural

  • USA
  • 2014-10-29
About the object
Barbetti was a student of Ulisse Forni and went to Florence to work in the studio of Forni's father, where he specialized mostly in woodcarving. In 1887, he was commissioned to do a bas-relief of the Old Testament for the church of Nottingham. Outside of such ecclesiastical subjects, the sculptor's work, like that of his fellow artists, was often inspired by mythological tales or stories from the Antique, which enjoyed a considerable vogue in the mid- to late 19th century. The excavation of ancient archeological sites initiated a newfound respect and admiration for the arts of ancient Greece and Italy. Key treatises on the subject circulated, while museum exhibitions and touring shows enticed visitors with mysterious, never-before-seen artifacts. Amidst more "realistic" figures and studies, classical mythology began to pervade popular culture. Among images of satyrs and nymphs and heroes, the tale of "Cupid and Psyche" became one of the most popular motifs, allowing artists and art-lovers to celebrate immortal and indomitable love.
The story became famous in the second century A.D. in Apuleius' The Golden Ass. One of the king's three daughters, the beautiful Psyche, drew even more admirers than Aphrodite. In a jealous fit, the love goddess sent her son Cupid (or Eros) to earth to cause Psyche to fall in love with a gruesome man. Falling in love with Psyche himself, Cupid set forth a new plan to send her into hiding, visiting her each night, his identity hidden under cover of darkness. The plan was foiled soon after Psyche, curious to see the face of her anonymous suitor, snuck upon the sleeping Cupid one night, a drop of oil falling from her lamp, startling him awake and causing him to flee. Hoping to regain his love, Psyche implored Aphrodite's forgiveness. Aphrodite then set before her four seemingly impossible tasks. Succeeding with three, Psyche failed at the last challenge, in which she had to travel to Hades and return with Persephone's box of beauty ointments. Though forbidden to look inside, Psyche opened it, releasing vapors that caused her to fall into a deep sleep. At this fatal moment Cupid appeared, taking Psyche into his arm, and raising her to Olympus so that she could be granted immortality.
It is this penultimate moment that Barbetti captures in his monumental sculpture group, drawn directly from William Bouguereau’s Psyché et l'Amour (fig. 1) and almost certainly authorized by the master himself. Painted in 1889 and commissioned by Mr. Paumure Gordon of Hatton Court, London, Bouguereau’s Psyché et l'Amour was exhibited at the 1889 Paris Salon under number 330. (The work has been at the Tasmanian Art Museum and Gallery, Hobart, Tasmania since 1949.)
Bouguereau may have been looking at particularly well-known examples by Antonio Canova executed between 1787 and 1793 and held in the Musée du Louvre, Paris. Ferdinando Vichi and Giulio Bergonzoli both executed similar compositions in marble. In Barbetti's work, Cupid, youthful with his head of loosely curled ringlets, smooth skin, lithe musculature, and large wings, gracefully supports the lovely Psyche, her long, flowing hair intermingling with her drapery, her delicate butterfly wings limp against her back, as the pair ride Zyphyr's wind toward the heavens. Despite the massive marble form, the carved, delicately swirling clouds surrounding Cupid's legs and Psyche's limp feet, floating in empty space, create a feeling of weightlessness. This remarkable depiction of the pair in mid-flight was a departure from other sculptors' examples, which placed them standing together on the ground or collapsed in an embrace on earth.
It is clear that Barbetti's exquisite craftsmanship is evidenced in every detail, engendering a truly mesmerizing, tour-de-force of carving. The composition is an idealized form that perfectly encapsulates the appeal of the story, long considered an allegory for the soul's desire for love. Here Cupid, with his white dove-like wings, personifies soaring love, while Psyche, which translates (in Greek) to both "soul" and "butterfly," bears the delicate wings of the latter.  
Signed R. Barbetti / Pietrasanta / 1900. Italy

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