John Gibson RA, Cupid pursuing Psyche, by 1843, marble relief
© Royal Academy of Arts, London; Photo: R.A./Paul Highnam

Object of the Month - September 2016


John Gibson RA, Cupid pursuing Psyche, marble

The sculpture depicts a scene from the story of 'Cupid and Psyche'. This ancient tale from a Roman text (The Golden Ass by Apuleius) has frequently been represented in art. The narrative follows Psyche, who symbolises the soul, as she is sent to live with Cupid but only ever meets him at night and is never allowed to look at him. One night, she shines a light on him while he sleeps and is so surprised to see the god of Love that she pricks herself on one of his arrows. He flees and the lovestruck Psyche embarks on a journey to find and eventually marry him, overcoming the many obstacles put in her path by Cupid's mother, the goddess Venus.

In this scene, it is Cupid who pursues Psyche and therefore represents the end of the story where Venus sends Psyche to the Underworld to ask Proserpina for a box containing the essence of beauty. On her way back, Psyche gives in to curiousity again and opens the box. This sends her into a deep sleep until she is woken by Cupid. Psyche is often shown with butterfly wings because the word 'psyche' in Ancient Greek means both soul and butterfly. The artist, John Gibson, always depicted Cupid with this 'top-knot' hairstyle found on classical sculptures of the god and other figures like Apollo Belvedere.

This theme saw a great revival in neoclassical sculpture, after being the subject of Antonio Canova's Psyche Revived by Cupid's Kiss (1793; Musée du Louvre, Paris, and State Hermitage, St Petersburg). By 1827 there were so many versions that one critic wrote that he could retell the whole story simply by describing the various statues by his contemporaries. John Gibson studied in Canova's Roman studio for several years and became fascinated by the story of Cupid and Psyche from the very beginning of his career. He continued to explore the theme throughout his life in his many drawings and sculptures.

John Gibson was Britain's most celebrated sculptor during the mid-19th century. He enjoyed an international reputation and counted Queen Victoria and Prince Albert among his patrons. Born near Conwy in Wales, Gibson was the son of a market gardener and moved to Liverpool with his family when he was nine years old. There, he was apprenticed to a cabinet maker and later a stone mason but his talent for art and passion for the classical world led influential patrons to fund his travel to Italy. He arrived in Rome in 1817 and studied with Canova before setting up his own studio in the city. Gibson intended to stay for three years but ended up settling in the Eternal City for life.

John Gibson wanted to leave his works and his wealth to 'some important good' and by the mid-1860s had decided to donate most of the contents of his Roman studio, and a sizeable amount of money, to the Royal Academy in London. When he died in 1866, crates filled with marble sculptures, plaster casts, drawings and personal effects were shipped to London where they were displayed together at Burlington House in a dedicated 'Gibson Gallery' which was open until the 1950s.

A selection of over 30 works by Gibson, including drawings, sculptures and plaster casts, can be seen in John Gibson RA: A British Sculptor in Rome in the Royal Academy's Tennant Gallery

You can also explore these and many other works by Gibson in London collections through a new virtual exhibition

Some of the Academy's collection of sculptures by Gibson can be seen on long term loan to Bodelwyddan Castle