The Beguiling Beauty of Psyche

The story of Psyche, like many Greek myths, is one of great drama and passion. Psyche, a mortal princess, was famed in the ancient world for her unrivalled beauty, and this beauty has been beguiling artists throughout history. Two 19th century artists who were both clearly under her spell were Pietro Tenerani and John William Waterhouse RA (1849-1917), and we are pleased to be offering examples of both of their works in our forthcoming Fine Interiors auction on 30 and 31 March.

The story goes that Psyche’s mortal beauty awakens a jealous rage in the Goddess Venus, who sends her son Cupid to shoot an arrow at her to make her fall in love with a monstrous creature. Instead, Cupid scratches himself and falls in love with Psyche. Abandoned by her family, Psyche is saved by Zephyrus, god of the west wind, and carried away to Cupid’s palace where she is waited on by invisible servants. There, Cupid visits her every night, but she is forbidden from seeing his face. One night, encouraged by her jealous sisters, she lights a lamp to see her lover’s face, injuring Cupid in the process by dropping hot oil on him and he flees. Psyche travels the earth searching for him and entreats Venus to help her. Venus instead sends her on a series of impossible tasks, the fourth of which is to take a golden box to the underworld to obtain a dose of beauty from Proserpine. She is told not to look in the box. Like Pandora, however, she cannot resist and opens the box, finding within it not beauty but sleep and she falls into a deep slumber.


Psyche by Pietro Tenerani

A carved marble figure by Pietro Tenerani (Italian, 1789-1869), 'Psyche in a Faint', 1860, carved marble, signed and dated, 110cm wide x 66cm deep x114cm high, together with a stone slab, 123 x 67cm. Est. £5,000-8,000

This sculpture by Pietro Tenerani, recently recovered from the garden of a country house in East Anglia, having been in the same family ownership for fifty years, depicts a scene from Apuleius' Metamorphoses, the moment that Psyche opens Proserpine's beauty ointment. The flask can be seen at the subject's feet, the cover falling from her hand. Tenerani revisited this subject on at least seven other occasions; he was fascinated with trying to capture the languid fluidity of the fainting body, setting a fleeting moment in stone. Other examples of this work can be found in prominent international collections, perhaps the most famous being the State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg.

We continue the theme in this red and black chalk study by John William Waterhouse RA (1849-1917). Waterhouse painted many mythological subjects including several depictions of Psyche: Psyche Entering Cupid’s Garden, 1904 (Harris Museum and Art Gallery) and Psyche opening the Golden Box, 1903 (private collection). The finished picture shows Psyche, seated in a dark wood, bending her head low as she peers into the slightly open box. A small plume of smoke rises from the interior. Fewer than 150 preparatory sketches by Waterhouse are known. They consist mainly of model's heads – generally the most important element of the painting – in chalks.


Waterhouse sketch of Psyche

John William Waterhouse RA (1849-1917) Study for 'Psyche opening the Golden box' black and red chalk 22.5 x 30.5cm. Est. £3,000-5,000

The present example is a typical preparatory sketch, confidently exploring the composition with fluid strokes, exquisitely modelling the flesh of the shoulder and back of the model. Not much is known about Waterhouse’s models and while it has been argued that he had a single muse who he returned to repeatedly over the decades (Miss Muriel Foster has been identified as a contender), it may also be the case that he chose a series of women with the same swan-like neck, doe eyes, modest features, full of understated grace that made his paintings both sensual yet innocent; a duality that has delighted viewers for more than a century.

We anticipate this enduring fascination with Psyche’s beauty will be reflected in the performance of both of these lots in our March sale, appealing to the modern buyer/collector as much as it did to the artists who studied her. 




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