The Courtauld Collects!
20 YEars of Acquisitions

17 June – 19 September 2010

Joshua Reynolds's Cupid and Psyche

Joshua Reynolds: Cupid and Psyche, The Courtauld GalleryJoshua Reynolds: Cupid and Psyche, The Courtauld Gallery, LondonJoshua Reynolds: Psyche and Cupid, The Courtauld Gallery

The Courtauld Gallery is proud to unveil Sir Joshua Reynolds’s late masterpiece Cupid and Psyche after major conservation. It forms the centrepiece of the Gallery’s new temporary display The Courtauld Collects! 20 Years of Acquisitions.

Joshua Reynolds: Cupid and Psyche before restoration
Cupid and Psyche before restoration
The painting entered The Courtauld Gallery under HM Government’s Acceptance in Lieu Scheme in 2004. Having been in the same private collection since 1923 it hadn't been on public display for 85 years and its condition had deteriorated.  The canvas had buckled and had started to detach from its stretcher, and the composition was obscured behind many layers of heavily discoloured yellow varnish.

 The cleaning of works by Reynolds is notoriously difficult, given his use of experimental media and techniques, but painstaking conservation lasting three years has now revealed the full subtlety of Reynolds’s achievement.

The story of Cupid and Psyche tells how the god Cupid is enraptured by the beautiful mortal Psyche and makes love to her in his palace at night so as to hide his true identity. The following evening Psyche secretly creeps into her lover’s bedchamber where she finds him asleep. However, Cupid is awoken by a drop of oil which spills from her lamp. Enraged he flies away and it is only after a series of arduous trials that the lovers are reunited.

Joshua Reynolds: Cupid and Psyche after restoration
Cupid and Psyche after restoration

Cupid and Psyche was one of three large history paintings which Reynolds exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1789. At that time the Academy occupied the premises at Somerset House which, since 1990, have been home to The Courtauld Gallery. Reynolds was the Academy’s founding president and in 1789 he was a senior artist at the height of his fame.  Cupid and Psyche met with great acclaim and the free and confident manner of its execution and graceful composition were much admired by contemporary reviewers. 

Rubens: Landscape by Moonlight, The Courtauld Gallery, London
Peter Paul Rubens Landscape by Moonlight, c.1635-40 © The Courtauld Gallery, London

The painting makes rich references to the art of the past, including the 16th century Italian artist Correggio. However, it also reveals Reynolds’s deep interest in nocturnal effects.  

He owned Rubens’s celebrated Landscape by Moonlight, now also at The Courtauld, and used it as an example of night lighting in one of his celebrated Academy discourses.  Reynolds was an advocate of painting by candlelight as a ‘practice very advantageous and improving to the artist’.

The painting remained unsold in Reynolds’s lifetime but it was the highest priced lot in the artist’s studio sale selling for 230 guineas to the collector Samuel Rogers in 1802.