John Gibson

(Conway, North Wales, 1790 - Rome, 1866)

Cupid pursuing Psyche

Marble relief 62.5 x 93 cm
Signed J. Gibson fecit romae
Circa 1854

- Algernon Percy, 4th Duke of Northumberland (1792-1865), probably Stanwick Park, Yorkshire, or Northumberland House, London, from circa 1854
- By descent until 2014

- Letter from John Gibson to Samuel Carter Hall dated Rome, 17 December 1855 (manuscript at the National Art Library, London, ref. no. MSL/1941/421) 
- John Gibson, personal account book III, in the archives of the Royal Academy of Arts, London, ref. GI (John Gibson, RA, papers c. 1822-1866) 
- E. Rigby Eastlake, Life of John Gibson, Sculptor, 1870, reprint 2010, p. 253 
- T. Matthews, The biography of John Gibson R.A., Sculptor, Rome, London, 1911, p. 243 
​- I. Roscoe, A biographical dictionary of sculptors in Britain 1660-1851, New Haven and London, 2009, p. 528 

This exquisite marble relief was carved by John Gibson, the greatest British neoclassical sculptor, for the Duke and Duchess of Northumberland. Representing Cupid pursuing Psyche, its serene classicism embodies Gibson’s mastery and elegance. The two lovers are suspended in mid-flight in a beautifully balanced composition, with Psyche’s lifted right arm echoing Cupid’s raised left leg. The sense of lightness is enhanced by the billowing drapes and details such as the outstretched toes and the fabric carefully concealing Cupid’s gender are testament to Gibson’s perfectionism. The artist remarkably captured the intense gaze shared by the two lovers; in fact he was captivated by their story and produced a set of illustrations for Elizabeth Strutt’s version of the fable published in 1850. The late-antiquity fairy tale of Cupid and Psyche was first recounted by Lucius Apuleius in his famous novel the Golden Ass (2nd century A.D.) and later humanists often interpreted the story as a philosophical allegory of the search of the soul for union with celestial love. 

Gibson made another marble relief for the Duke and Duchess, which represents the Marriage of Psyche and Celestial Love. The reliefs might have been commissioned to celebrate the Duke and Duchess’ marriage, their subject matter being of course entirely appropriate. 
Gibson mentions the reliefs in a letter to the engraver S. C. Hall dated Rome, 17 December 1855: 
“I have received the engraving of Cupid and Psyche. I made last year a duplicate of this basso rilievo for His Grace the Duke of Northumberland as it was the Duchess who would have it, I should be obliged if you would send an impression to her Grace… I also made for the Duke a companion basso rilievo of Cupid and Psyche flying in the air. It is the Soul persued by desire every year they sell many cameos of it…” 

As was usual for his working practice, Gibson made more than one version of the subject. One marble of smaller dimensions is in the collection of the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool; it was commissioned by Mr. and Mrs. Sandbach, a couple of wealthy industrialists from Liverpool. Another further relief, of similar dimensions to ours, was bequeathed by Gibson to the Royal Academy of Arts, London. This gift from the artist to the Royal Academy bears testament to the esteem in which he held his composition. According to Eastlake (see lit.) another version was carved for a Miss Webb, but it remains untraced. 

A small plaster copy by an unknown artist is in the collection of the Fogg Museum, Harvard University and, as stated in Gibson’s letter quoted above, cameos of the model were made by Roman hard stone carvers, attesting to the success of the composition. 

The young Gibson started his apprenticeship in Liverpool; later in his career several of his patrons would be from that city. He left for Italy in 1817 and in Rome he received instruction from the leading sculptors of neo-classicism, studying under Canova and later Thorvaldsen seeking to achieve the ideal beauty of Greek sculpture. The writings of Johan Joachim Winckelmann also informed his work. Gibson soon became on of the leading exponents of neo-classicism, receiving commissions from English, Italian and American patrons. The artist declined many offers of work in London, writing in 1831: ‘I thank God for every morning that opens my eyes in Rome’, though he exhibited at the Royal Academy from 1816 to 1851 and was elected an ARA in 1833 and RA in 1838.