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Cupid Delivering Psyche (Sir Edward Burne-Jones, ca. 1867, gouache on paper)

The story of Cupid and Psyche is a breathless tale of hidden identity, subservience, misplaced trust, and true love.  It is a favorite theme for western artists, particularly since it features Cupid (the capricious god of love who wreaks so much chaos in mortal life) emotionally caught in a seemingly impossible situation. Each of these three paintings by Edward Burne-Jones depicts the moment, late in the story when Cupid finally forgives Psyche (who has suffered endless woe, pain, and setbacks).  Psyche has visited the underworld and returned with a box containing divine beauty.  Warned not to open the box, she has decided to steal a pinch so that Cupid will love her despite her mortality.  Unsurprisingly the otherworldly box contains poison of infernal sleep. Cupid then intervenes directly and utilizes his divinity to rescue her from the curse.

Cupid Delivering Psyche (Sir Edward Burne-Jones, 1867, mixed media)

As a young man Edward Burne-Jones studied theology at Oxford and was anticipating a career as a minister–until his spirit was seduced by ancient poetry (really!).  He left the university without a degree and joined a brotherhood of artists and poets. He painted three nearly identical versions of this dramatic scene over the course of several years.  The first and finest from around 1867 is a gouache portrait of Maria Zambaco, a Greco-English beauty.  In 1866, Maria’s mother had commissioned Burne-Jones to paint Maria (as Psyche no less) for an entirely different picture, and the (married) Burne-Jones fell in love with the (married) Zambaco.  Their tempestuous affair destroyed both marriages and nearly led them to suicide before ending in 1869 (although it resulted in a number of gorgeous paintings—which were pilloried by the Victorian art world for portraying female sexual assertiveness in a positive light).

Cupid Delivering Psyche (Sir Edward Burne-Jones, 1871, watercolor and pastel on paper?)

Although outwardly the same, these three paintings are also subtly different.  In the last painting, from 1872, Cupid is not red and radiant but gray and diffuse (and he has lost his ever-changing wreath).  Psyche’s hair has changed color and her features have been altered.  Additionally, the sheer repetition of this same moment of divine intervention suggests that romance is a figure eight:  our arguments and passions keep repeating themselves (which is in fact what happens in the tale of Cupid and Psyche).  Lovers  relive the same moments of longing, confusion, and passion again and again and again even as the world changes like water and our lives wear out.

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