The legend of Cupid and Psyche was extremely popular with writers and artists in the second half of the 19th Century, and this picture is typical of the classical revival in Victorian art at this time. The story is related in the Roman poet Lucius Apuleius's Metamorphoses or The Golden Ass. Psyche's beauty was so great that no man dared to approach her as a suitor. An oracle told her parents to dress her for marriage and sacrifice her, but she was transported instead to the golden palace of Cupid, the god of love. She lived there in a blissful state, waited on by slaves, and each night Cupid would make love to her, but without his identity being revealed. He later abandoned Psyche when, encouraged by her jealous sisters, she gazed on his sleeping form by the light of a lamp and inadvertently dropped hot oil on his body.
The painting shows Psyche undressing herself in order to bathe before Cupid's arrival. She is completely self-absorbed, and her narcissism is emphasised by her reflection, captured in the smooth surface of the water. The subject of a bather and the exquisite draughtsmanship clearly pay tribute to J.A.D. Ingres (1780-1867) and especially such works as La Source (1820-56, Musée d'Orsay, Paris). The woman's pose, with arms raised to reveal her naked body, derives more specifically from the Callipygian Venus, a famous Greek statue that Leighton would have seen in the Capodimonte Museum in Naples. Such a subject would have been potentially shocking to a Victorian audience, but the picture appears to have met with very few moral objections when it was first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1890.
Leighton was one of about 45 artists who were asked by the artist Lawrence Alma-Tadema to assist in the decoration of the atrium of his house in Grove End Road, St John's Wood (Leighton was offered one of Alma-Tadema's own paintings in exchange). Each artist was asked to paint a panel 32 inches high and between 2½ and 8 inches wide. According to legend, Leighton, sitting opposite Alma-Tadema at dinner, picked up a narrow-bladed dessert knife and said to his friend, 'My dear Tadema, what sort of subject do you expect me to paint on this?' (Strand Magazine, December 1902, pp.617-8).
Leighton's original panel measured 32 inches by 6½ inches and even the present version is almost twice its width. The composition emphasises the picture's verticality through the soaring Ionic columns (echoed in the picture's frame) and the downward flow of Psyche's draperies.
Stephen Jones, Christopher Newall, Leonée Ormond, Richard Ormond, Benedict Read, Frederic Leighton 1830-1896, exhibition catalogue, Royal Academy of Arts, London 1996, pp.214-5, no.108, reproduced p.214, in colour.
Alison Smith, The Victorian Nude, Sexuality, Morality and Art, Manchester 1996, p.210.