Psyche, in a myth retold by the first-century AD Latin writer Apuleius, was a mortal girl, in love with the immortal Cupid, son of Venus, goddess of love, who was jealous of her great beauty and punished her with difficult tasks, eventually sending her into a long, death-like sleep. Cupid rescued her by touching her with the point of his golden arrow. That scene of resuscitation, of rebirth as it were, is Antony Van Dyck’s subject here. 

It’s always moving to see a great artist paying homage over a lifetime to a great predecessor. In this connection I think particularly of Van Dyck, whose paintings constantly refer back to the achievements of Titian in the sixteenth century, in the last year of which Van Dyck was born in Antwerp, capital of the Spanish-ruled and Catholic Low Countries. It’s not a matter of simple copying or imitation of a Venetian by a Fleming, but always the inspired reinvention of themes or motifs favoured by the older artist. Here Van Dyck is clearly thinking of the mythological subjects of Titians’s poesie – we looked at one of them, his Rape of Europa, last month.  

Van Dyck was an extraordinary genius, amazingly precocious: a virtuoso who – few people realise – would have been among Europe’s greatest artists as both draughtsman and painter if he’d died at the age of twenty. In fact he survived until he was forty-two and, summoned to England by the great connoisseur King Charles I, inaugurated the grand tradition of portrait-painting in this country. Coming from the Antwerp of Peter Paul Rubens, he was bred in the aesthetic of the early European Baroque, and had an instinctive feeling for the large scale and sweeping rhythms of heroic mythological or religious subjects. This is the only subject to survive of a group of mythological scenes telling the story of Psyche that he painted for Charles. 

He must have had in mind Raphael’s famous scenes from the story of Psyche in the Villa Farnesina in Rome, but the scheme shows him more evidently looking over his shoulder at Titian, blending idealised figures with expressive landscape. The odd asymmetry of this composition, with its chiming diagonals of flying figure and dead tree, recalls the centrifugal design of Titian’s Rape of Europa, while being at the same time exceptionally original in its overall conception (though perhaps indebted as well to an earlier work by Titian, his Death of St Peter Martyr, at that time in the church of SS Giovanni e Paolo in Venice). 

Van Dyck shows Psyche’s body in a pose very like his representations of the dead Christ, while Cupid is wonderfully vital and alive, reaching out to her in a gesture which parallels that of God’s invitation to Adam in Michelangelo’s version of the creation of Man. This is an allegory of life and death, of the power of love to revivify human failure.

The landscape plays an important part in the story. It’s difficult to imagine that Van Dyck was not influenced by the elaborate scenery of the masques that he must have watched at Court, designed by the great architect Inigo Jones. The two protagonists of this drama, winged Cupid and sleeping Psyche, are seen in an outdoor setting, dominated by a huge, densely leafed tree which contrasts symbolically with a bare trunk: the diagonal of Cupid’s arm, linking his flying wings and Psyche’s slumped form, is at right angles to the stem of the dead tree that leans off to the right. 

In addition to Baroque stage-settings these observations of nature remind us of the exquisite, quite naturalistic watercolour drawings Van Dyck made of landscapes while he was in England. In that medium too he needs to be remembered as inaugurating a long and eminent English tradition.

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