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godfried schalcken
(1643 Made – 1706 The Hague)

After. Cupid and Psyche. Mezzotint. 41.1 x 31 cm. Goodwin (McArdell) 218.

Establishing the authorship of this charming and masterly mezzotint has proved a difficult task and has still not been satisfactorily resolved. Goodwin recorded the print in his oeuvre catalogue of mezzotints by James McArdell, noting just one proof before letters in the British Museum in London. However the engraving is missing from the catalogue of works by Chaloner-Smith and also differs stylistically from autographed works of McArdell’s. The Lennox-Boyd database describes three different states. The first is before letters, with the inscription space cleaned. In the second state the plate has been reworked and the print bears the names of Schalcken and McArdell. In the third state only the typography of the inscription has been slightly altered. It is possible that the existence of this state has merely been assumed, as Chaloner-Smith provides no evidence of an impression. Our proof is thus an unrecorded trial proof, before the inscription space was cleaned.

As indicated at the outset, McArdell’s authorship is questionable. It is possible that the engraving was the work of an unknown English or Dutch engraver, who borrowed the name and hence the prestige of his more famous colleague without permission. Nevertheless the print brilliantly translates Godfried Schalcken’s exquisite paintwork to the mezzotint medium. From 1692 to 1697 Schalcken was in London, where he was mainly active as a portrait painter of the English aristocracy. His small-scale, candlelit night-pieces enjoyed great popularity in the 18th century, when the present mezzotint was executed.

This intimate scene depicts an episode from the Metamorphoses of Apuleius. The protagonist, Psyche, was so beautiful that she excited the jealousy of Venus, who gave Cupid the task of making Psyche fall in love with some ugly mortal. Instead, Cupid fell in love with her himself and took her off to a palace. However, he only visited Psyche at night and forbade her to look at him. The present scene shows the crucial moment when Psyche yields to her curiosity and gazes at her sleeping lover by the light of an oil-lamp. Cupid, awakened by a drop of hot oil, is angry that Psyche has broken her word and leaves her. Forlorn and repentant, she seeks her lover all over the world and has to perform various superhuman tasks which Venus has set her. The last of these tasks proves fatal. In the underworld Psyche opens a casket containing a deadly sleep to which she succumbs. Finally, Jupiter hears Cupid’s lamentations and agrees to let him wed Psyche, who is subsequently admitted to Olympus. The story is seen as an allegory of the journey of the soul through life, symbolizing union with the divine after earthly suffering and death.

A superbly rich, tonal impression with margins around the platemark. Minor ageing, otherwise in perfect condition.