Hillemacher, Eugène-Ernest (1818-87; French)
Psyche in the Underworld 1865
Oil on canvas, 117.0 x 90.0 cm
Gift of Gustave Curcier, 1872
National Gallery of Victoria (p.306.6-1)

Hillemacher, a French academician, was made a chevalier of the Legion of Honour in the year this work was painted and shown at the Paris Salon. Psyche is shown venturing into Hades to obtain a dose of Proserpina’s beauty for Cupid’s mother Venus. Charon, steering the boat, and the Fates, on the shore, are easily recognizable.

The story of the union of Psyche (“soul”) and Cupid (“love”), told in detail by Apuleius in the 2nd century AD, was interpreted in allegorical fashion in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

But this image of Psyche’s final trial takes the form of a vivid pantomime, presumably comparable with various tableaux vivants of the story staged in France and elsewhere (including Australia) during the 19th century.


NGV 1875, p.38; NGV 1894, pp.11-12 (I.La Trobe Gallery, no.9; ill.); NGV 1905, p.33 (I.La Trobe Gallery, no.61; ill.)

For the artist, see Bénézit 7, p.93 (listing the present work); AKL 73 (2012), pp.222-23; and http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eugène_Ernest_Hillemacher

For the iconography, see e.g. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cupid_and_Psyche, a detailed survey of the story and representations of its various episodes, reproducing the NGV painting, and including remarks on 19th-century tableaux vivants (also citing Anita Callaway’s Visual Ephemera: Theatrical Art in Nineteenth-Century Australia, Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 2000)