Alone and in despair, Psyche mourns the flight of Love, which she has involuntarily provoked. Despite having been forbidden as a mortal to look upon the god, Psyche could not resist discovering who was her lover at night. While Cupid slept, she watched him by the light of an oil lamp; moved by his beauty, she spilled a drop of oil. Cupid awoke and fled. The butterfly near Psyche symbolizes the soul (psyche in Greek). The lamp and a dagger (which she carried in case she encountered a monster) lie on the ground. The sculpture was commissioned in 1783 by the Comte d’Angiviller, director of the Bâtiments du Roi (King’s Buildings) as a companion piece to Bouchardon’s Cupid Making a Bow from the Mace of Hercules (Louvre). Pajou chose the theme of Psyche, drawn from a tale by the Latin writer Apuleius (c. AD 125-170) and a poem by La Fontaine, the 17th-century French writer of fables. The work gave him the opportunity of creating a piece as fine as that of his illustrious predecessor, and also of rivaling his contemporary Houdon, whose bronze Diana the Huntress had been cast the previous year in 1782 (Huntington Art Gallery, San Marino, California). The plaster cast was exhibited at the 1785 Salon and met with success tainted with scandal. Shocked by its total nudity, the priest of Saint-Germain-l’Auxerrois obtained the withdrawal of the work from the Salon. It was displayed in the artist’s studio nearby and brought the sculptor even more fame, albeit controversial in nature. Critics condemned the naturalistic rendering of the figure, her mannered pose, and the exaggerated expression of emotion in her face. Like Bouchardon, Pajou tried to combine the idealism of Antiquity and the Renaissance with the faithful rendering of a natural model. The total nudity of a marble of this size stems from the Greco-Roman tradition. The pose is probably inspired by those of Portia (Versailles), a 16th-century Italian Greek-Roman-style statuette in the royal collections, and Cleopatra, a copy of a sculpture in the Pergamum style much admired since the Renaissance that was kept in the Vatican, of which France had a 16th-century bronze replica in Fontainebleau. However, the proportions owe nothing to the Greco-Roman canon. Like Christophe-Gabriel Allegrain in his Venus of 1767 (Louvre), the sculptor shows a voluptuously beautiful female body. For critics at the time, the figure’s full curves were inappropriate for a youthful heroine. Nor does Psyche have the noble bearing of the Greco-Roman figure. Her pose is theatrical: the body shown in pronounced contrapposto; the head raised to the heavens; the gesture of the right arm effusively raised to the breast; the heavy locks of hair falling in curls upon the forehead, temples and shoulders accentuating the tormented facial expression. Psyche suffers before the spectator like a dramatic heroine, arousing our compassion. Pajou emphasizes the frontal viewpoint, which underscores the impression of proximity. Indeed, the style of his Psyche does not appear to be that of a companion piece to Bouchardon’s Cupid. Pajou made a lengthy search for a block of pure marble, testing the patience of the Comte d’Angiviller. The sculpture was completed in 1790 and presented at the Salon in 1791, causing much less of a stir. It again received some criticism, but the brilliant execution, chiseling of the details and, above all, the sensation of a body quivering with emotion were much admired. Louvre Museum, Paris.
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