Crowds may flock to see the Mona Lisa, but I always head first to Étienne-Maurice Falconet’s L’Amour Menaçant, which sits in the much quieter sculpture wing. This 1757 sculpture charmed me so much when I first visited, in 2007, that I returned to Australia to write a dissertation on it.
Falconet’s sculpture depicts Cupid as a lifelike child, older than a baby yet younger than an adolescent, holding a finger to his mouth as he reaches to pull out an arrow. You can walk around the sculpture in the Louvre, and in the process Cupid goes from sweetly silent to threatening silent as he draws out the arrow before your eyes, perhaps about to aim it at another gallery visitor.
I’m not the only person to have been this impressed by Falconet’s Cupid. Madame de Pompadour, the original owner, was so enamoured of her new acquisition that she had Falconet make a second copy. She displayed one in her foyer and another in her garden.
In the end, Falconet made three full-size versions of L’Amour Menaçant. They now stand like ambassadors in some of the world’s best art museums. There’s one in the Hermitage and one in the Rijksmuseum. On top of this, you can see Falconet’s sculpture painted by Fragonard in The Happy Hazards of the Swing (in the Wallace Collection, London) and the porcelain factory at Sevres mass-produced smaller copies for those who lusted after Madame de Pompadour’s prize possession.
Cupid, playful yet dangerous, was a central God to eighteenth century art. In earlier times he had been either moral allegory or decorative feature, often shown as a passive indicator of romantic theme or as mischievous toddler scolded by his mother, Venus.
In Falconet’s sculpture, Cupid is an independent actor. He is a child with adult knowledge, both mischievous, toying with those around him, and powerful, as the quiver he reaches for reminds audiences.
He is secretive, and the finger to the lips suggests a command to viewers, too, to hold the silence. This silencing gesture shows he is aware of his own abilities, but still he acts as he pleases, playing no heed to social niceties. The contrast between Cupid’s infancy and calculation heightens his power, marking him as god rather than child.
Cupid’s ability to capture the excitement and threat of pleasure, powerfully felt yet ultimately defeated by time, made him relevant to an aristocratic society preoccupied with the transience of pleasure. In the late 17th and early 18th centuries, under Louis XIV and XV, the aristocracy were stripped of political power and distracted with luxuries. The period was one of increased licentiousness and escapism, but while extra-marital affairs became a badge of pride for the powerful, social codes were still strict.
Cupid’s moral ambiguity appealed. He warned audiences of the dangers brought about through his games of temporal desire whilst simultaneously reassuring society that surrender to his power was natural and unavoidable, a means of pleasurable escape. Cupid allowed his followers to absolve themselves of individual responsibility.
Madame de Pompadour, though, bought Falconet’s L’Amour Menaçant, after she saw it as a plaster model at the 1755 salon. In 1750, Pompadour’s status changed from King’s mistress to King’s friend. Madame de Pompadour regularly used her art purchases to regulate her image and so, after this, many of the pieces she commissioned focused on elevating the status of friendship in court.
Why, then, a sculpture depicting Cupid, a symbol of physical love?
It’s likely that Madame de Pompadour used the popular figure as an agent for gaining power. By owning Cupid, and a popular version of Cupid by a celebrated sculptor, she was securing his power and branding it with the Pompadour name. Cupid, an unruly god, became her subordinate.
In addition to this, Cupid’s silencing gesture is key. Pompadour initially changed the piece’s name from L’Amour Menaçant to L’Amour Silencieux. The finger to the lips suggests discretion being exercised with regard to intimate affairs and Madame de Pompadour surely would have sought to discourage gossip following her change in position.
Over 250 years later, this Cupid won’t give up her secrets.
In the Louvre, a smaller piece by Falconet shows Galatea as she comes to life before Pygmalion’s eyes. The subject, taken from Ovid, was a popular one in the eighteenth century. Falconet’s version tries to answer an interesting question: how do you depict a marble sculpture coming to life through the medium of sculpture?
In Pygmalion et Galatea, Falconet’s answer involves a plinth, a small Cupid and naturalistic rendering, but L’Amour Menaçant can also be seen as a response to Ovid. Falconet’s Cupid is a lifelike young boy made from cold, dead marble. Even the hairs on the feathers of his wings are finely chiselled. In this corner of the Louvre, it’s not Venus magically bringing a sculpture to life; it’s the sculptor, himself, giving life to a god through his own craftsmanship.