The story of Cupid and Psyche was first told by Apuleius in The Golden Ass in the 2nd century and was retold by William Morris in The Earthly Paradise c.1868-1870. The tale of Cupid and Psyche tells of Venus' jealousy of the beauty of a mortal girl named Psyche. The Goddess of Love entreated her son Cupid to fire his golden arrows at Psyche as she slept, so that when she awoke, she would unwittingly fall in love with a hideous monster that Venus would place beside her. Cupid reluctantly agreed to his mother's request and flew to Psyche at night, entering her chamber through the window. As he silently approached her bed-side, he placed one of his golden arrows in his bow and drew back the bow-string. Leaning forward over the somnolent maiden he was suddenly startled by her beauty as she opened her eyes. As she awoke he let slip the arrow and inadvertently wounded both himself and Psyche, uniting them both in the enchantment. Knowing that his love for Psyche would anger his mother, Cupid fled the palace, fearing that if he stayed his desire for her would consume him. Enraged Venus cursed Psyche, ensuring that no-one would desire to marry her and Cupid laid aside his quiver. Months passed and Cupid refused to fire his arrows and thus no animal or human could fall in love. The world began to age and to restore the harmony Venus consented to lift the curse placed upon the poor girl. Cupid fired his arrows far and wide and the earth was rejuvinated once more but despite her beauty no-one would marry Psyche. After consulting an oracle Psyche's parents abandoned the girl on a mountain-top where she was carried away by Zephyrus the west wind, to a wonderful palace where she was attended by invisible servants. Cupid secretly visited her at night but insisted that the lamps be extinguished before his arrival so that she would not know that it was he who visited her. Her treacherous sisters convinced Psyche that her nocturnal visitor was a huge serpent that would devour her. Psyche waited until Cupid was sleeping and held up a lamp to reveal the God reclining beside her. Enthralled by Cupid, Psyche kissed his mouth but accidentally allowed a drop of lamp-oil to drip onto his naked body. He awoke and flew from the palace, leaving Psyche alone and distraught.
The present watercolour Psyche depicts the melancholic maiden drawing aside a curtain to look from a balcony over Cupid's pleasure garden. It is the morning after Psyche had revealed Cupid as he slept and it was through this window that Cupid has flown. The sadness in her expression suggests that she knows that he will not return to her. The story eventually had a happy ending, but not before further twists and turns in the tale.
Poynter made a series of oil paintings and watercolours depicting heroines of antiquity. Zenobia Captive of 1878 (private collection) was the first picture by Poynter in a series of half-length depictions of classically-attired girls with Graeco-Roman names in marble interiors. In 1881 he exhibited another in the series, Helen (Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney) depicting Lillie Langtry dressed in a toga and surrounded by Troy in flames. A watercolour version of Helen was owned by Prince Edward who was romantically linked to Langtry (now Royal Collection). In 1882 Poynter painted the third in the series of pictures, a small oil entitled Psyche in the Temple of Love (Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool). The subject was a prosaic interpretation of the myth of Cupid and Psyche described by the artist in a letter; 'She is supposed to be idling away the time in the Palace of Love - where if you remember she is left alone all day. She is playing with a butterfly, which is the well-known emblem of Psyche' (Letter from Poynter to William Crosfield dated 20 November 1882, Walker Art Gallery). The present watercolour was painted in 1884 and exhibited at the Royal Watercolour Society that year. Poynter's brother-in-law Edward Burne-Jones produced a series of designs for woodcuts to illustrate Morris' story of Cupid and Psyche and in 1872 the painter George Howard commissioned Morris and Burne-Jones to decorate his new house at 1 Palace Green in Kensington with scenes from the romance.
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