Few subjects have inspired artists over the centuries as much as love. But these works of art don’t always capture a scene of bliss. In fact, artists have depicted everything from love and lust to heartache, jealousy, sadness, and even tragedy. The following works of art are all currently on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) in Gallery 305 on the third floor of the Ahmanson Building. This guide was curated by Mary Lenihan, LACMA's Director of Adult Programs, Education and Public Programs Department.
LACMA describes Judgment of Jupiter (1786-1787) as “the most important English neoclassical relief in the United States.” John Deare, an English sculptor who spent his entire professional career in Rome, was commissioned by the Royal Academy to create this relief for an exhibition in 1787. Deare's sculpture is a scene is from Homer's Iliad, depicting a fateful decision that would ultimately lead to the Trojan War.
Jupiter sits among the gods at the wedding of Peleus and Thetis (at left). All were invited except Eris, the goddess of discord. As payback for the slight, Eris tosses a golden apple inscribed "to the fairest" among the guests. Minerva, Juno, and Venus each claim it. Jupiter wisely refuses to pick the most beautiful goddess, and hands the apple to his messenger, Mercury, who flies above. Jupiter instructs Mercury to pass the apple - and the thankless task - to the mortal prince, Paris. Each goddess offers Paris a bribe - Juno would make him the king of Europe and Asia, while Minerva would grant him wisdom and skill in war. Paris chooses Venus, who presents him the most beautiful woman in the world as his wife. She is Helen of Sparta, who becomes Helen of Troy. The Greeks’ expedition to retrieve her is the mythological basis for the Trojan War, symbolized by Mars, the god of war, shown at the far right.
The French of the Rococo period (roughly the first part of the eighteenth century) enjoyed scenes of aristocrats at play. Jean-Antoine Watteau excelled at depicting these scenes, often including an ironic or satirical twist. Watteau is credited with inventing the genre of fêtes galantes - scenes of bucolic and idyllic charm, suffused with an air of theatricality.
In The Perfect Accord (1719), an older gentleman plays a flute, attempting to woo a lovely young lady. A jester to the left and the statue of Pan on the right imply that the painting’s theme is both erotic and comical. The love scene’s comedic punchline is the painting’s title, which suggests the couple will make beautiful music together. In reality, French society would have considered the unattractive older musician a completely inappropriate match for the beautiful young lady, making this a scene of discord.
Callisto, the daughter of a king, has taken a vow to remain a virgin and is serving as a nymph of the goddess Diana. Jupiter disguises himself to avoid detection by his long-suffering wife Juno, separates Callisto from the other nymphs, and impregnates her. Callisto’s pregnancy is later discovered when she is bathing in the woods with Diana and the others, which is the scene depicted in Diana and Callisto (1723) by François Le Moyne, a French rococo painter. French aristocrats loved these scenes because they were an acceptable way to visually show erotic tales of lovely nude women. Furious, Diana expels Callisto from the group. Callisto subsequently gives birth to a son, Arcas. Juno gets her revenge by transforming Callisto into a bear. Years later, as Arcas is about to kill his mother with a javelin, Jupiter places Callisto and her son among the stars, where we know them today as the constellations Ursa Major and Ursa Minor, respectively.
The story of Cupid and Psyche was well known from antiquity and, like other tales with similar erotic content, acceptable for decoration in such a setting. Although she isn’t a goddess, Psyche is so beautiful that Venus, the goddess of beauty, becomes jealous. Venus sends her son, Cupid, to make Psyche fall in love with an ugly mortal by piercing her with one of his legendary arrows. As Cupid arrives at her side, Psyche awakens. Cupid, about to strike with the arrow, is so startled by her beauty that he scratches himself instead, and falls in love with her. After a series of calamities, godly tests, and other events, the lovers are reunited and Jupiter makes Psyche an immortal, so that she may marry Cupid.
Cupid Wounding Psyche (1741) was painted by François Boucher, one of the most influential artists of the eighteenth century. His painterly technique and playful, colorful pastorals and genre scenes of Parisian society helped to define the Rococo style. You have to look up to see this love story - Cupid Wounding Psyche decorated an aristocratic home in Paris and was supposed to hang above a door in a room used for informal entertainment.
This love story has it all: lust, greed, and gold. Danae was the daughter of the king of Argos. Upon learning from the oracle at Delphi that he would be killed by his daughter’s son, the king imprisons Danae in a bronze tower to keep her childless. Jupiter is smitten by Danae’s great beauty, and disguises himself as a shower of gold coins that rains down upon the sleeping princess - the hero Perseus is born from this encounter. Perseus eventually kills his grandfather by accident, thus fulfilling the prophecy.
The Sleeping Danae Being Prepared to Receive Jupiter (1603) was painted by Hendrik Goltzius, the leading Dutch engraver of the early Baroque period who later became a renowned painter. The Dutch valued hard work and wealth, but not greed. Goltzius’ painting celebrates the innocent beauty of the princess, but also provides a warning. Does love or gold conquer all?