Benjamin West’s mythological subject derives from an ancient Roman text that chronicles the torrid love affair between Cupid, a god, and Psyche, a mortal princess. Details in the painting—including a silver urn at Psyche’s feet, birds engaged in airborne struggle, and a menacing sea serpent—allude to several of the difficult tasks assigned to Psyche by Cupid’s jealous mother, Venus, as requisites for uniting the two lovers. This allegory of youthful awakening, triumph over adversity, and ultimately, family reconciliation, can be seen to express West’s sense of pride in the coming of age of the American nation, even though he remained in Britain as the monarchy’s favorite painter.
West was the first artist born in the American colonies to attain international acclaim. The expatriate was appointed historical painter to England’s King George III by 1772, and in 1792 became president of London’s prestigious Royal Academy.