“Cupid and Psyche,” 1808, oil on canvas, Benjamin West — Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art collection
“Cupid and Psyche,” 1808, oil on canvas, Benjamin West — Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art collection
Benjamin West was the first artist born in the American colonies to attain international acclaim. Largely self-taught through years of studying and copying the old masters in Italy and France, the expatriate artist was appointed historical painter to England's King George by 1772, and in 1792 succeeded Sir Joshua Reynolds as president of London's Royal Academy. West taught and influenced such esteemed American artists as John Singleton Copley, Charles Willson Peale, Gilbert Stuart, and John Trumbull.

"Cupid and Psyche" is a relatively late work in West's long and distinguished career. The painting's mythological subject derives from Lucius Apuleius' second-century AD Roman text "The Golden Ass," which chronicles the torrid love affair between Cupid, a god, and Psyche, a mortal princess. It is likely that West was familiar with Cupid and Psyche's story through a new translation of "The Golden Ass," published in London in 1799. While there is no passage in the story that precisely corresponds to West's painting, it echoes the romantic and frankly erotic sensibility of Apuleius' interpretation:

With honied words, around his form

With fond devotion now she twines,

With rapt'rous kisses pressed and warm

Each soothing, witching art combines.

Forgetting his celestial race

Unconscious of his own misdeeds

He yields to her resistless grace-

Who can resist when woman pleads?

West was surely aware of the many and varied interpretations of this mythological theme in the visual arts. He is known to have seen the Italian sculptor Antonio Canova's 1793 marble rendering of Cupid and Psyche (Louvre Museum) during an 1802 trip to Paris. Canova's ability to create the illusion of soft human flesh through stunning technical prowess and the use of milky white marble was much admired by fellow artists. The sculpture unquestionably provided a model for West's lovers, whose unblemished, iridescent bodies appear as if carved out of the dense shadow. Psyche's upraised arms are nearly a direct quote from the Canova sculpture, which in turn derives from an ancient painting of an embracing faun and bacchante published in 1773 as an engraving in the English edition of the landmark publication "Antiquities of Herculaneum," which includes drawings of artifacts and architectural elements recovered from the ancient Roman city named for Hercules. The lions (very hard to discern in the lower left) perhaps serve in a variety of symbolic capacities: reminder of the lion skin that was Hercules' principal attribute and the newly excavated origins of the ancient myth; the British lion triumphant during the turbulent era of the Napoleonic Wars; and, with the ascendant eagle (virtually invisible in the upper right), the possibility of a provocative wink by the ex-patriot painter at America's recent independence.

While Cupid and Psyche can be tied to literary and artistic sources dating back as far as the Renaissance, the painting also neatly summarizes the main currents of European painting of its era: neoclassicism and romanticism. West's precise, nearly sculptural modeling of the two figures in the center foreground of the image stands in dramatic contrast to the more mysterious and loosely painted background, which features an airborne struggle between two doves and a larger, eagle-like bird, as well as cavorting putti (cherubs) and lions. The trees and sky, rendered in muted mauves and adumbral greens and blues, pulse with movement; a small opening in the billowing clouds allows a glint of light to break on the distant horizon.

More than just a love story, the full-blown Cupid and Psyche myth is an allegory of youthful awakening, triumph over adversity, and, ultimately, familial reconciliation. It is tempting to consider it in the context of West's own latent sense of pride in the new American nation. In 1826 West's sons offered to sell the painting to the United States government and, although Congress declined, the painting eventually became part of the Corcoran Gallery's (Washington, D.C.) permanent collection until it was acquired by Crystal Bridges in 2010. Perhaps, this painter to King George III would have smiled upon the subtle, possibly seditious irony of this belated valentine finding its way home to America.