By Sebastián Encina, Collections Manager
Go to the store during the month of February and you are likely to run across several aisles worth of Valentine’s Day gift ideas. Of course, there are chocolates and candies, stuffed bears and other critters, and countless other possibilities to give to a loved one, a child, whomever you wish. February 14th and the days leading up to it are flooded with hearts and Cupids and other symbols of love. It is rather difficult to avoid it all.
For this month’s “From the Archives,” we present our own Cupids in the collections. Though the Kelsey Museum has quite a number of Eros/Cupid artifacts (figurines, sculptures, even coins), this month we choose to share the photographic art held at the Museum, photographs taken primarily in the second half of the 19th century. Though exact dates are not associated with the individual photographs, we know many of them were created in the 1860s and later. Some of the images are attributed to Michele Mang, an Italian photographer who was active in the 1860s, 1870s, and 1880s. We also hold photographs from John Henry Parker, who collected or commissioned photographs of Italy (read more about Parker in Passionate Curiosities: Tales of Collectors & Collections from the Kelsey Museum, by Lauren E. Talalay and Margaret Cool Root).
In general, the photographic collection at the Kelsey shows art and architecture found across Europe and Near East. The photos here focus on representations of Cupid, primarily in Italy. Some are of sculptures, others of frescos, and one a mosaic. They show Cupid in a number of forms and at a range of ages. We see the baby-like Cupid in KM 2000.1.3210, where he sits at the feet of Apollo, and in KM 2000.1.1696, where several representations hover around Hercules. In several depictions — KM 2000.1.2884, 1961.8.70, 2000.1.2782, and 2000.1.1879 — Cupid is a young boy, no longer a baby. A slightly older Cupid is depicted in images such as KM 1961.8.950, 1961.8.958, and 2000.1.2435, among others. Cupid as a young man is seen in KM 1961.8.633, 1961.8.634, 1961.8.635, and 2000.1.2518.
The Kelsey has several depictions of the same work of art, or similar works of art, perhaps taken by different photographers at different times. We attribute some works to certain photographers, but the rest are unattributed.
Cupid/Eros was and still is a popular subject in both ancient and modern art. Though modern popular culture often shows Cupid as a pudgy baby with wings and the famous bow and arrow, he did not always take this form. The collections at the Kelsey Museum demonstrate some of the variations of Cupid that exist. Next time you are at the store purchasing Valentine’s Day gifts, remember that those gifts could include a very different depiction of the famous God of Love.