David to Delacroix: The Rise of Romantic Mythology

By Dorothy Johnson | Go to book overview

2
From Eros to Thanatos
The Mapping of the Mythological Body

Because Greek myths encode certain primary biological and social
confrontations and self-perceptions in the history of man, they endure
as an animate legacy in collective remembrance and recognition.
We come home to them as to our psychic roots.

—GEORGE STEINER, Antigones

As we have seen in the previous chapter, one of the deities from classical mythology that took center stage in late eighteenth-century French mythological discourse and art was the god Eros, also known as Amor or Cupid. In this chapter, we will increase our focus on the fascination with the god of love.

During the first half of the eighteenth century, we see Eros most frequently depicted as a child, an antique tradition in poetry and the visual arts revived during the Renaissance and Baroque periods and much favored in the mythological paintings and sculptures commissioned by the kings and courts, prepotent patrons of mythic subjects since the reign of Francis the 1st. The fashion and taste for classical myth cloaked in courtly meaning, which had characterized the reign of Louis XIV, continued under his eighteenth-century successors. Depictions of the child Eros are seen everywhere, from mythological paintings, sculpture, and prints to the decorative arts.1 Typical examples from this period can be found in François Boucher’s Hercules and Omphale from around 1731 (figure 36) and Noël-Nicolas Coypel’s Bacchus, Venus, and the Three Graces of 1726 (figure 37), in which playful depictions of the child god acting as agent of love predominate. These images correspond to the definition of Cupid in Pierre Chompré’s popular Dictionnaire abrégé de la fable, first published in 1727 as a handbook for artists and writers and continually reprinted throughout the eighteenth century. Chompré gives but a few lines to Amor/Cupidon, the mischievous child deity who rules “la volupté”: “He was the son of Mars and Venus. He presided over volup-

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