February 12, 2013

Seller of Cupids

        Here's a pair of funny block prints in honor of Valentine's Day.  Apparently the idea of buying and selling cupids as a symbol of procuring love was a popular one in ancient Rome.  When the classical world became wildly fashionable in the eighteenth century, the concept of the Cupid Seller became a popular motif once again.  I find it a bit disturbing from a philosophical or moral standpoint, but endearingly goofy from an artistic point of view.
        Are those little cupids-by-the-bushel sentient like toddlers with wings?  Are they more like human-shaped birds or some mythical humanoid animal?  Or are they actually divine, like Cupid or cherubim?  Are they slaves, pets, or familiars?  And how does one build up a stock to sell?  Can you breed them or only collect them from the wild?  Do the sellers go door to door, or do they hold Tupperware parties and invite all their friends to get together and chat while admiring the wares?  And how do the buyers know what cupid they'll get?  Do they select the one that seems most adorable, like choosing a puppy from a litter?  Does the seller merely grab the one on top of the heap?  Or do you fill out a questionnaire like with a matchmaking service so that you'll be provided with the most compatible cupid?
        In the first of these prints, the seller is grabbing the cupid rather roughly by the wings, which may explain why he's reaching out supplicatingly to the potential buyer.  But it looks as if she may already have made her choice with the cupid on her lap.  In the second image, which is much more detailed and is a reproduction of a painting, the seller demonstrates what I suspect is the proper way to hold a cupid's wings - like a butterfly's, to minimize damage.  Even so, the cupid in question is making an obscene gesture, which seems to be intended for the seller, or possibly his brethren in the basket.  It's unclear to me from the buyer's expression whether this rude cupid is to her taste.  Truth to tell she looks a little bored.  Maybe she's wondering whether he'll be any more interesting than the perfume, flowers, and box of chocolates already on her table.  (Okay, I don't know that it's chocolate in the box.  Maybe it's jewelry.  Maybe it's Kupid Kibbles.)
        In any case, this Valentine's Day the advertisers of a million heart-shaped wares want to convince you that you can buy love… but clearly their goods are pretty weak substitutes for True Love, when you consider that 250 years ago you could have been buying a real live love-god in the flesh.

[Pictures: Seller of Loves, engraving by Carlo Nolli, from Le Pitture Antiche d'Ercolano e Contorni, 1762 (Image from An Introduction to Ninteenth Century Art);
Cupid Seller, etching and engraving by Jacques Firmin Beauvarlet, 1778, after a painting by Joseph-Marie Vien (Image from The Philadelphia Museum of Art).]

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