Venus & Cupid

As Valentine’s Day approaches on February 14, we are highlighting Cupid and Venus, the deities of love, who appear frequently in our Fantastique exhibit. Come fall in love with the Fired Arts at WMODA.

The Love Vase

One of the most spectacular pieces in the WMODA collection is the Love Vase, 30 inches tall, which was made for the Chicago exhibition of 1893. The finial features Cupid with a lighted torch ‘casting his net and ensnaring the blinded inhabitants of the globe, upon which a map of the American continent is depicted in gold’. The painting of the vase was by Charles Labarre who worked for Doulton’s Burslem Pottery for less than a year. He was renowned for his painting of frolicsome putti and other classical figures in the style of Sevres, the French porcelain factory where he worked also.

The Birth of Venus

In classical myth, Venus-Aphrodite was born of sea-foam. The early Renaissance painter Botticelli painted the most famous image of her arising naked from the sea on a giant clam shell, which has inspired many interpretations in porcelain art. One of the most impressive Lladró sculptures on display in Fantastique depicts the Birth of Venus and there is a striking luster vase by Pilkington’s Royal Lancastrian studio.

Aphrodite was the Greek goddess of love, sex, beauty and fertility and her Roman equivalent is Venus. Her golden chariot is drawn through the heavens by white turtle doves, the birds of love, which often accompany her in art. However, she was a goddess of the sea as well as the heavens and had a sea-going chariot drawn by Tritons. She is often portrayed with a mirror symbolizing her vanity as can be seen in the 1920s porcelain figure of Venus Adorned by Hutschenreuther.

Aphrodite’s Rose

In classical times, the love goddess played an essential role in prenuptial rites and wedding nights.  Her symbolic flower is myrtle, which was thought to be a potent aphrodisiac, and her worshipers wore myrtle crowns at her festival. Since Queen Victoria’s reign, myrtle has been included in royal wedding bouquets. The red rose is also sacred to Aphrodite and is said to have blushed or been stained red when the goddess cut her feet on its thorns while rushing to the aid of her dying lover Adonis. Rose trees were offered to the goddess during her sacred month in April, associated with the springtime blossoming of trees and flowers.  The affair between Venus and the war god Mars resulted in the birth of Cupid, the winged love deity. In Fantastique, there are several porcelain figures of Venus with her child by European factories such as Dresden and Lladró.

Cupid’s Arrow

Cupid is the god of desire and erotic love. Known as Eros in Greece, he appeared originally as a slender winged youth. Later in Roman times, Cupid is more often portrayed as a chubby boy with a bow and arrow. Anybody who is shot with Cupid’s golden arrow is filled with uncontrollable desire. The barb on Cupid’s silver arrow has the power to induce hate in his victims. One of the most dramatic sculptures of Cupid in action was modeled by Gilbert Bayes in Royal Doulton stoneware as a garden and architectural ornament. One of these splendid Romance roundels is in the Wiener private collection in New York.

Cupid’s brother Anteros is the god of requited love, literally love returned. He is often confused with Cupid particularly in Piccadilly Circus in London as Anteros, not Eros, is the Angel of Christian Charity symbolizing the selfless philanthropic love of the Earl of Shaftesbury for the poor. In art, Cupid and Anteros often appear in multiples as the Greek Erotes or Roman Amores, the ever-youthful gods of love.  Allegedly, Cupid is winged because lovers are flighty and likely to change their mind and boyish because love is irrational.

Putti and Amorini

Groups of winged or wingless children are sometimes known as amorini and they merged with the putti, chubby male children, to become a popular motif in Western art.  By the Renaissance period, Cupid is often indistinguishable from the cherubs, who appear as angelic messenger spirits between the realms of the human and the divine in secular and religious art. Portraits of Cupid and his cherubic friends appear frequently in porcelain by Meissen as they were considered particularly suitable as embellishments for the dessert table. Elaborate porcelain tableaux of idyllic romantic subjects replaced sugar confections as dinner time conversation pieces, for instance Cupid with a flaming heart, and the complex tableaux School for Love.

Be My Valentine

Cupid is now the most popular motif for Valentine cards.  The feast of the martyred Christian Saint Valentine first became associated with romantic and courtly love in the 14th century. By the 18th century it had evolved into an occasion when lovers expressed their love for each other with flowers and greeting cards. The frivolous aspect of Cupid’s power can be seen in several Royal Doulton figures from the Art Deco era. In the Mask and Mamselle, Cupid hides behind the flirtatious young women ready to fire his arrow. In Love in the Stocks, he is held captive by a Victorian lady in flounced skirts and petticoats.

Cupid Punished

The punishment of Cupid for the hurt he inflicts on men is a common theme in Greek poetry and art. Cupid was punished by his brother Anteros and also the three Graces, which was a popular subject in art. Prints of Angelica Kauffman’s painting, translated as Even Cupid is not Alien to Crime inspired several porcelain factories, including Meissen. Sometimes Cupid is chastised by Venus for his heartbreaking behavior. In Fantastique a Wedgwood black basalt figure shows him being disarmed. On one Minton moon flask, Venus wags her finger at Cupid and he hangs his head in shame on another pâte-sur-pâte flask, A specialty of Minton, the pâte-sur-pâte technique where china clay slip is painstakingly applied in relief, was often used to depict classical gods and goddesses in diaphanous robes. For a brief period, the Doulton Burslem studio also produced exquisite pâte-sur-pâte designs, having attracted a couple of the Minton artists.

Cupid on a Dolphin

In art, Cupid is often shown riding a dolphin symbolizing his mother’s origins in the sea. and this became a playful subject for fountains and garden statuary. Cupid astride a sea beast may also represent the wild ride of love. A dolphin-riding Cupid often attends the wedding of Neptune and Amphitrite. Dolphins represent affection and were portrayed in antiquity as friendly to humans, hence the association with the god of love. George Tinworth, the first artist at Doulton’s Lambeth Pottery, modeled several terracotta sculptures dolphins with chubby cupids, who are usually wingless. Tinworth also produced a delightful spill holder showing two cupids sharpening their arrows which we would love to find for WMODA.

Cupid & Psyche

In the tale of Cupid and Psyche, the youthful god is wounded by his own weapons and experiences the ordeal of love. Psyche is a beautiful mortal whose name means ‘soul’ or ‘butterfly’. She is the youngest and loveliest of three daughters of a king. Her beauty is so admired that Venus becomes enraged with jealousy. She convinces her son Cupid to visit the maiden while she is sleeping and pierce her with his arrow, planning for a grotesque monster to be the first thing she sees and loves. However, Cupid accidentally pierces himself and is so distracted by his love for Psyche that he neglects his duties.

Venus curses Psyche so that no man will propose to her, and her father abandons her on a mountaintop to be married to a mystery being. The Zephyrs, spirits of the west wind, carry her off to a sumptuous palace where Cupid visits her at night under cover of darkness. Although she is forbidden by Cupid, Psyche longs to know what her husband looks like. Eventually her jealous sisters convince her to look one night and she falls in love with Cupid, having scratched herself on one of his arrows. However, the furious Cupid flees into the night.

Love Conquers All

Psyche goes in search of Cupid and the jealous Venus gives her a series of seemingly impossible tasks. Eventually she completes them all, aided by the gods and helpful animals. Cupid realizes that he cannot live without her and entreats Jupiter, the king of the gods to allow them to marry. The wedding is celebrated with a banquet on Mount Olympus and the bride is granted immortality. Everybody lives happily ever after even with Venus as a mother-in-law! A famous Roman marble statue of Cupid and Psyche kissing, now in the Capitoline in Rome, has inspired white bisque porcelain and Parian figures by Sèvres and Minton. The celebrated Royal Doulton artist, George White, painted a bone china vase with a lovely scene of Cupid and Psyche ascending to Mount Olympus. White was inspired by the French academic painter William Adolphe Bougereau as was another Doulton artist, Walter Nunn, who portrayed Cupid and Psyche as children on Lambeth Faience. Their marriage and sacrifice to Hymen, the Greek god of marriage, is depicted on one of Wedgwood’s most popular Jasper ware plaques by John Flaxman. In some traditions, Hymen was the son of Dionysus/Bacchus, the god of revelry and Aphrodite and is often included as an erotes.

Come fall in love with Venus, Cupid and Psyche as portrayed in the fired arts in Fantastique.