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    Sale 2135

    Important Old Master Paintings and Sculpture

    28 January 2009, New York, Rockefeller Plaza

  • Lot 43

    Benjamin West, P.R.A. Swarthmore, PA 1738-1820 London

    Cupid and Psyche

    Price Realised  

    Benjamin West, P.R.A. Swarthmore, PA 1738-1820 London
    Cupid and Psyche
    signed and dated 'B. West 1808' (lower right)
    oil on canvas
    54¼ x 56¼ in. 137.8 x 142.9 cm.


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    West never exhibited the present work during his lifetime, probably because of its erotic subject matter and it is not therefore a canvas that would have been known to contemporary critics or the public. For an artist, whose reputation and public image were immensely important to him, it can be seen as an unusually personal essay. The subject of Cupid and Psyche, however, has been commonly treated in western art since the Renaissance. The literary source is Lucius Apuleius's second-century A.D. work, The Golden Ass, which Voltaire considered to be the Greeks' most beautiful fable. A new translation by Hudson Gurney had been published by J. Wright in London in 1799.

    However, the subject that West chose is one of the less commonly represented episodes of the story of Cupid and Psyche in The Golden Ass. Psyche, who has fainted after opening the vase she was given in Hades by Prosperina and commanded by Venus not to open, is revived by Cupid's kiss.

    With honied words, around his form
    With fond devotion now she twines,
    With rapt'rous kisses pressed and warm
    Each soothing, witching art combines.

    Forgetting his celestial race
    Unconscious of his own misdeeds
    He yields to her resistless grace -
    Who can resist when woman pleads?


    West's treatment of Cupid and Psyche follows that found in several other well-known works from the period, in particular that by François Gérard of 1798 and Antonio Canova's sculptural group of 1793 (both Louvre, Paris). The emphatic profiles of both Cupid and Psyche in the present work suggest a lingering influence of the French Neoclassical paintings that West had seen on a visit to Paris in 1802.

    Indeed, the present work is extremely close to Canova's composition which West had seen in the Murat collection on that trip. The positions of the two heads and Psyche's arms upraised around Cupid's neck seem to have been directly inspired by the marble. Von Erffa and Staley (op. cit., p. 243) point out that the specific source for the pose of Psyche comes from an engraving after a painting showing an embracing faun and bacchante published in the English edition of the Antiquities of Herculaneum in 1773, to which West was one of the original subscribers. They further note that the same ancient painting was identified by C.F. Fernow in 1806 as the inspiration for Canova's composition. In 1806, at a dinner party sitting next to the collector Henry Hope, West recalled seeing the celebrated works of Canova in Paris (Farington Diary, 3 October 1802 and 25 June 1806, v, p. 1899; vii, p. 2796). At that time Canova's Cupid and Psyche was, in fact, owned by Hope.

    The detail in the upper right corner of two doves being attacked by a darker bird does not correspond with anything directly in Apuleius's text but is analogous with scenes of aerial conflict in versions of Death on the Pale Horse which West first painted in 1796.
    West also painted a different subject from the story of Cupid and Psyche, The Eagle Bringing the Cup of Water to Psyche (Princeton University Art Museum, Princeton), which he exhibited at the Royal Academy of 1805.

    West was the first American artist to achieve an international reputation and to influence artistic trends in Europe. He was born on 10 October 1738 in Springfield (now Swarthmore), Pennsylvania, the tenth and youngest child of John West (1690-1776), innkeeper, and his second wife, Sarah (1697-1756), daughter of Thomas Pearson of Marple, Pennsylvania. Both parents came from Quaker families. In Philadelphia about 1747, West met the young English artist William Williams (1727-1791) and received some instruction in painting. Aged eighteen he set himself up as a portrait painter in order to earn money to continue his studies in Italy. Helped by a group of local subscribers he travelled to Italy 1760-63, studying under Mengs and Gavin Hamilton and acquiring a taste for neoclassical history painting. He settled in London as a portrait painter in 1763 and exhibited regularly at the Society of Artists and the British Institution. He was a founder member of the Royal Academy on its formation and succeeded Reynolds as President in 1792. He was History Painter to George III and the monarch's favorite artist. He was the teacher of a number of important American-born artists of the next generation including John Singleton Copley, John Trumbull and Charles Wilson Peale. He died in London in 1820 and was buried in St. Paul's Cathedral.


    Special Notice

    No sales tax is due on the purchase price of this lot if it is picked up or delivered in the State of New York.


    Provenance

    Offered by West's sons to the United States in 1826 (25) and sold by them; Christie's, London, 22-25 May 1829, lot 75 (85 gns. to John Hick).
    John Hick, Mytton Hall, Whalley, Lancashire; Christie's, London, 18 June 1909, lot 80, from where purchased by T. Permain, London (105 gns.) with T.J. Blakeslee, Blakeslee Galleries, New York.
    Purchased by the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 28 February 1910.


    Pre-Lot Text

    PROPERTY FROM THE CORCORAN GALLERY OF ART, SOLD TO BENEFIT THE ACQUISITIONS FUND


    Literature

    J. Barlow, 'Notes', The Columbiad: A Poem, Philadelphia, 1807, p. 399.
    'A Correct Catalogue of the Works of Benjamin West', The Port Folio, New York and Philadelphia, December 1811, 3, VI, no. 6.
    American Art News, 26 March 1910.
    'Uncle Sam Now the Proud Owner of a "Cupid and Psyche"', New York Herald, 27 March 1910, illustrated.
    'Pictures by West', New York Herald, 27 March 1910.
    'Pictures by West', Philadelphia Item, 24 May 1910.
    W. Tindall, Standard History of the City of Washington from a Study of the Original Sources, Knoxville, 1914, p. 485.
    The Greek tradition in Painting and the Minor Arts, exhibition catalogue, Baltimore, 1939(?), pp.23-24.
    A. Graves, 'West, Benjamin', A Century of Loan Exhibitions 1813-1912, New York, 1914, republished 1968, vol. 4.
    R. Quant, 'Conservation', Corcoran Gallery of Art Bulletin, November 1957, vol. 9, p. 7, no. 3.
    G. Evans, Benjamin West and the Taste of his Times, Carbondale, 1959, pp. 91-92, pl. 69.
    R. Rosenblum, 'Benjamin West's "Eagle Bringing the Cup of Water to Psyche": A Document of Romantic Classicism', Princeton Art Museum Record, 1960, vol. 19.
    The Nude in American Painting, Brooklyn, 1961, p. 2, pl. 4.
    J. Mellow, 'The Best in Art', Arts Yearbook, 1962, vol. 6, p. 74.
    J. Harithas, '250 Years of American Art', Apollo, July 1966, 84, pp. 69, 70, illustrated.
    D. Phillips, A Catalogue of the Collection of American Paintings in the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., 1966, I, p. 23.
    W. Gerdts, The Greatest American Nude, New York, 1974, pp. 2-4, illustrated, 31-32, illustrated.
    F. Getlein and J.A. Lewis, The Washington D.C. Art Review, New York, 1980, p. 11.
    'México, Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes', La Pintura de los Estados Unidos de museos de la ciudad de Washington D.C., 1980-81, pp. 20, 44-45, no. 2, illustrated.
    M. Brown, One Hundred Masterpieces of American Painting from Public Collections in Washington D.C., Washington D.C., 1983, pp. 42-43, illustrated.
    H. von Erffa and A. Staley, The Paintings of Benjamin West, New Haven, 1986, pp. 243, 269, illustrated.
    W. Vance, America's Rome, New Haven, 1989, vol. I, p. 217.


    Exhibited

    London, West's Gallery, 1822-1828, no. 73 or 132.
    Manchester, Art Treasures of the United Kingdom, 1857, no. 14.
    Leeds, National Exhibition of Works of Art, 1868, no. 1268.
    Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art, Early American Paintings, 5 December 1925-3 January 1926, no. 87.
    Baltimore, Baltimore Museum of Art, The Greek Tradition in Painting and Sculpture, 15 May-25 June 1939.
    Brooklyn, New York, Brooklyn Museum of Art, The Nude in American Painting, 9 October-December 1961, no. 2, pl. 4.
    Washington, D.C., Corcoran Gallery of Art, Past and Present: 250 Years of American Art, 1966, unpublished checklist.
    Washington, D.C., Corcoran Gallery of Art, The American Genius, 24 January-4 April 1976, catalogue with no checklist.
    National Collection of Fine Arts, 18 December 1970, on loan.
    Mexico, Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes, La Pintura de los Estados Unidos de museos de la ciudad de Washington D.C., 18 November 1980-4 January 1981, pp. 20, 44, 45, no. 2, illustrated.
    Washington, D.C., Corcoran Gallery of Art, Figuratively Speaking: The Human Form in American Art, 1770-1950, 20 November 2004-23 May 2005, unpublished checklist.