Danaë lies naked, reclining gently on a divan. Above her falls a shower of gold. This is Jupiter, who came to Danaë in the form of golden rain and made her pregnant. Cupid, god of love, directs the stream of gold down towards her womb. Cupid in fact has no real function or role in the myth of Danaë and the shower of gold. He is here merely to signal the mythological content of the picture.
The artist has transported the myth to his own time by using shapes and stylistic features that were popular then. The divan and its decoration, Danaë’s hairstyle and body shape and the warm, golden colours that dominate the painting are all expressions of the Neoclassicism that was the height of fashion in the late 18th century. It is said that Wertmüller toured with the painting, concealing it behind a curtain that, for a fee, he would draw aside as a kind of peepshow. The contemporary imagery no doubt helped to stoke the imagination of the viewers. If one ignores the figure of Cupid, it is easy to find parallels with contemporary depictions of naked, sexually provocative women in Danaë’s pose.
The story of Danaë is told in works such as Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and forms a common motif in art from the Renaissance onwards.