Memory's Cut: Caravaggio's Sleeping Cupid of 1608

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Caravaggio’s late painting of a Sleeping Cupid has long been recognized as a mimetic engagement, as well as reversal, of classical traditions of antique sculpture. This paper probes the troubled relationship of Caravaggio’s Cupid with that of its art-historical reflection. Caravaggio famously described himself as a painter of the ‘real’, without memory. Yet much of his oeuvre, as in this instance,works at the boundaries of art-historical citations that are then vexed, as if to undo the work they seek simultaneously to emulate. In this instance, the child’s body seems to reference not only Caravaggio’s self-acclaimed social history of art as a painter of observed realism, but also the most archaic of Cupid’s ancient identities as a primordial deity of archaic myth, suffused with mythological references to sleep and death. The essay connects artistic manifestations of Sleeping Cupid with the ancient and Renaissance literature on sleep and dreams for the first time to argue for a deeper historical contextualisation of its cultural valence. Somnus or Hypnos, whose cave was bordered by poppies and through which flowed the river Lethe of oblivion, also embodied hallucinations and dreams, those traversals of memory out of the depths of the psyche. Much later, ancient myth would also configure c. 1900 psychoanalytic understandings of the unconscious, memory, oblivion, death, sleep, and dreams. What we grasp in Caravaggio’s Sleeping Cupid is the disturbing incursion of observed social realism within a recollection of the visual languages of a broken dream of classicism.
The research for this essay was funded by an AHRC Translating Cultures award (£106, 717) on medial translations between sculpture and painting, and forms part of a journal special issue that I commissioned and edited (with Gavin Parkinson), in the journal of the Association for Art History UK, Art History, on the theme of Image & Memory, as arguably key to the definition of our discipline. The Courtauld Institute Research Forum and the Association for Art History UK generously funded a day of papers for the volume bringing together all the past editors of Art History to explore this thematic, and to launch this special issue, in which this essay on Caravaggio's Cupids appears.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)884-903
JournalArt History
Issue number4
Early online date21 Aug 2017
Publication statusPublished - Sep 2017


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