The story of Psyche is first told in The Golden Ass, by the philosopher and poet Apuleius who was born in North Africa in the second century AD. Psyche was a princess renowned for her beauty. As a result of the jealousy of his mother, Venus (Aphrodite), Psyche comes to the notice of the god Cupid who duly falls in love with the mortal princess. Cupid asks Zephyrus to transport Psyche to his palace and there he visits her at the dead of night, beguiling her with tenderness and charm but commanding her never to look on his face. Before light returns, Cupid leaves and thereafter he only visits Psyche at night making it impossible for her to discover who her lover is. This arrangement continues for some time but Psyche begins to fear that her suitor might be some sort of monster. Eventually her curiosity prevails and while her mysterious lover lies beside her sleeping she lights a lamp to find to her amazement that it is Cupid, his bow and arrows lying beside their bed. But at that moment a drop of hot oil from the lamp falls on Cupid and he wakes instantly. Reproaching Psyche for her lack of faith, he disappears and she is doomed to search the world for him. Eventually, Zeus takes pity on her and she is reunited with Cupid.
Claude has chosen to portray the moment when Psyche is abandoned by Cupid. She sits disconsolately on a rock outside his palace on a deserted shore. It is hard to think of another painting which is suffused with such delectable melancholy. The poignancy of Psyche’s isolation is heightened by the extraordinary beauty of the landscape which is suffused with a sublime morning light. The rising sun strikes the castle’s round tower. The rest of the castle is shrouded in shadow and appears to be totally deserted, adding to the feeling of loneliness. There is some activity out at sea and some deer graze nearby. Otherwise Psyche is alone, her solitude heightened by the gentle lapping of the sea on the shore.
This is a near perfect painting — an idealised landscape has been masterfully realised; but this is not all; the landscape forms a backdrop to a drama which has just reached a climax and Claude uses this to heighten our nostalgia for an unattainable Arcadian moment. We long to visit that place and to experience that very instant when the morning breeze begins to ruffle the sea and we long to gaze on that same mysterious castle.
Image: Courtesy of the National Gallery, London
1662 Johannes Vermeer: View of Delft, The Hague, Mauritshuis
1664 Frans Hals: The Women Regents of the Old Men’s Home in Haarlem, Haarlem, Frans Halsmuseum
1664 Jan Steen: Celebrating the Birth, London, The Wallace Collection