John William Waterhouse’s 1903 canvas Psyche Opening the Golden Box takes as its subject a story from a Latin novel known as 'The Golden Ass' written by Apuleius in the 2nd century. One of the artist's favourite myths, the story of Cupid and Psyche follows the princess Psyche, an object of jealously for the Goddess Venus on account of her radiant looks. In anger, Venus orders her son Cupid to make Psyche fall desperately in love with a monster. Instead, Cupid falls for Psyche. After a number of tests, obstacles and trials, the gods immortalise Psyche and the pair are married in heaven. Yet the last of these trials imposed upon Psyche included a journey to the underworld to collect and contain within a box a portion of the beauty of the Queen of the Underworld for the goddess Venus to revitalise her looks. After an arduous search, Psyche fills the box and re-enters the world into the light of day. It is there that she is overcome by an unbearable inquisitiveness and opens the box. What she finds inside is only a deep and infernal sleep.
Apuleius's novel was rediscovered during the Renaissance and became engrained in the classical canon that was the foundation of so much of Waterhouse’s creative output. This imagined reproduction of the scene encapsulates many of the long-running themes of Waterhouse’s prodigious career. Psyche Opening the Golden Box fuses the immensely popular and notorious Pre-Raphaelite style of the mid-nineteenth century with the Academic and Neo-Classical styles. Waterhouse was responsible for over 200 works throughout his career, almost of all of them imagined reproductions of life and scenes in classical mythology, historical, literary and legendary subjects. A close adherent to the Classical tradition Waterhouse commonly portrayed situations or tableaux in which a femme fatale is ensnared by her own unbearable curiosity.
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