William-Adolphe Bouguereau loved a sickly-sweet romance, and the story of Cupid and Psyche was a perfect inspiration. Like his fellow Neoclassical artists, Bouguereau often depicted scenes from the classical stories of ancient Greece and Rome for inspiration. In this nearly life-sized painting we see the titular Psyche swept into the air by a curly-haired man sporting white wings. They're both physically perfect, incredibly beautiful, and rendered in the delicate pinks and creams that make Bouguereau’s figures instantly recognizable.
So what’s happening in this melodramatic scene? Its title, The Abduction of Psyche, seems at odds with Psyche’s serene, bordering on ecstatic, expression, but ‘abduction’ would seem to be a mistranslation. In the original French this work is called “L'enlèvement de Psyché” which may also be translated The Rapture of Psyche, and that’s our clue.
The story of Cupid and Psyche is an excerpt from the book Metamorphoses, written in the 2nd century AD by the Roman prose author Lucius Apuleius Madaurensis. It’s a story-within-a-story, and a remarkably compelling one, packed with vengeful gods, heroic trials and star-crossed love. The scene Bouguereau depicts here is an important one — a transition from the physical realm to the heavenly.
An oracle had foretold that the beautiful princess Psyche would marry a monster neither gods nor men can resist, and that this monster waited for her on a mountain top. And so with lamentations and a funeral dirge, Psyche and her family climb the high peak and leave her there to await her fate. But instead of a monster, Zephyr, god of the west wind gently carries Psyche to a heavenly meadow where she will meet her prophesied partner, the young god Cupid. This is the moment Bouguereau has captured—Psyche overcome with relief, swept off to her new life.
Of course the story does not end here for poor Psyche. Her happy ending will be hard won. I fully recommend giving the full story a read here.
Reed Enger, "The Abduction of Psyche," in Obelisk Art History, Published November 25, 2015; last modified May 19, 2021, http://arthistoryproject.com/artists/william-adolphe-bouguereau/the-abduction-of-psyche/.