Having served an informal apprenticeship of seven years with George Frederic Watts, Spencer Stanhope worked alongside Rossetti and Burne-Jones in painting the Oxford Union murals, becoming part of the second generation of Pre-Raphaelites. By the 1860s he was working in an increasingly personal style, heavily influenced by Botticelli, but also becoming more 'Aesthetic' in feel.
The Grosvenor Gallery, which held its first exhibition in 1877, had fast established itself as the preferred venue for Aestheticism. In its first season, Spencer Stanhope had shown his masterpiece Love and the Maiden, sold in these Rooms 6 June 1997, lot 43, now in the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco. As noted by Liz Prettejohn, visually that picture could almost be a rendering of the story of Cupid and Pysche, but the title generalises it, in the Aesthetic manner (S. Calloway and L. Federle Orr (ed.), The Cult of Beauty, London, 2011, p. 74). Compositionally, it shares much with the present work, in the reaching figure of Cupid and the rich detail of the trees behind. Cupid and Psyche also recalls Stanhope's 1863 Royal Academy exhibit Juliet and the Nurse (see lot 26), with the subject gazing through an open window to a landscape beyond, seemingly unaware of the figure behind.
The subject of Cupid and Pysche comes from Apuleius’ Metamorphoses, and was rewritten as a poem by William Morris in 1898. Psyche, the daughter of a king and queen, was so beautiful that her admirers worshipped her rather than Venus. Venus was enraged, and sent Cupid to wreak her revenge by shooting Psyche with an arrow so that she might fall in love with something hideous. Instead, he scratched himself with the arrow, and he too fell in love with Psyche. He placed her in a remote palace where he visited her secretly, only in darkness. One night Psyche lit a lamp and discovered the identity of her lover, who fled. Pysche fell into the hands of Venus, before Cupid rescued her and asked Jupiter to make her immortal, upon which the two were married. The subject was extremely popular amongst both Renaissance artists and the Pre-Raphaelites; Edward Burne-Jones in particular depicted several episodes from the story, including one also shown at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1878 (no. 109).
Here, Spencer Stanhope depicts the moment Cupid approaches Psyche in order to shoot her with his arrow. She stands in contemplation at an open window, unaware of Cupid tiptoeing along the corridor behind her, and the change and passion his entrance will bring into her life. There is an element of voyeurism, as we see Cupid’s impending arrival whilst Psyche remains unaware both of him and of us. The rich jewel-like tones and fabrics are typical of the Aesthetic movement.
The 1st Earl of Wharncliffe, who was an early owner of this picture, was a great friend of Sir John Everett Millais. In 1872, Millais had introduced him to Sir Edward John Poynter, then a young artist, in order that the latter should design a scheme of pictures on the theme of heroes fighting dragons for the billiard room of his house, Wortley Hall, near Sheffield. The first of these was Perseus and Andromeda, shown at the Royal Academy in 1872. Wortley Hall was bombed during World War II, and the pictures lost, but a chalk study for Perseus and Andromeda was sold in these Rooms, 4 December 2018, lot 80.