Amore e Psiche

Antonio Canova (Possagno, 1757 – Venice, 1822), Cupid and Psyche standing 1796 – 1800, plaster, 148 x 68 x 65 cm Montebelluna, Private collection

The story of Psyche was a common topic for artists, and especially painters, in the late-eighteenth century. Only, Canova, however, was able to rework the idea, his Psyche Revived by Cupid's Kiss informed with philosophical and Romantic insights.

From the “hot and passionate” versions of Love, or Cupid, and Psyche embracing executed in the period 1794 to 1796), Canova segued to the Standing Psyche and Love (Amore e Psiche stanti), Dating from 1796 to 1800, there were more “platonic”, as he himself put it. In both cases, though, the style is long and delicate, the figures looking like they are made of living flesh, as opposed to hard stone. A masterpiece of the sculptor’s skill, comparable to the laurel crowns in Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne (Apollo e Dafne), a work that Canova revered, here we see beauty transcending the senses to become eminently spiritual. Thus the contemplation of the butterfly seems to forewarn of the fleeting nature of love and of beauty, of youth, and of life itself, recalling some lines from Dante’s Purgatory:

O superbi cristian [...] non v’accorgete voi che noi siam vermi nati a formar l’angelica farfalla che vola alla giustizia senza schermi?
(Purgatorio X, 124 – 126)

The first version of this marble was created for the collector Colonel John Campbell (later the first Baron Cawdor), but was later acquired by Joachim Murat, the brother-in-law of Emperor Napoleon I. The piece is now in the Louvre, in Paris. A replica, destined — once again — for Baron Cawdor, was sold to Joséphine de Beauharnais, the first wife of Emperor Napoleon I in 1802-1803. Exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1808, the piece was sold, by the now ex-Empress, in 1815, along with a number of other marble sculptures by Canova, to Tsar Alexander I, and is now in the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg.

The cast we see here was shipped from Rome to Possagno in 1829, along with another that is at the Museum. Canova’s executor, his half-brother, Giambattista Sartori, then donated it to count Filippo Canal, who had married Sartori’s niece, Antonietta Bianchi, the widow of the collector Pietro Stecchini (1822-39).