In the 19th century, when prostitution was a much-discussed public issue and in focus of legislation, there was extensive debate about the appropriate depiction of the female nude. While male nude models were often soldiers or pugilists who were directly inspired by the athletes of antiquity, there were no comparable contexts for female models. The morality of those models was just as controversial as the propriety of the images they posed for. In Victorian Britain, there were two different traditions of representation for female nudes: Inspired by naturalism and the colorfulness of Venetian painters such as Titian, the ‘English’ nude contrasted with the ‘classical’ nude, which drew on the restrained French classicism of a Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. In the 1860s, the category of the ‘classical’ nude gradually emerged, initially inspired by French classicist painters such as Ingres, and later also by the emerging aestheticism with its preference for the ‘beautiful’, abstract and formal qualities of a work of art over its subject. In contrast to Etty’s rich palette and energetic brushwork, these paintings combine an idealized body with pale flesh tones and a smooth surface reminiscent of the white marble of ancient statues. The preference for classical nudes became increasingly popular with artists, art critics and customers alike. The fusion of biblical and ancient motifs paved the way for paintings that combined a biblical narrative with modern poses and themes.

The myth of Cupid and Psyche (or Eros and Psyche) has a long history. The legend comes from the “Metamorphoses”, written by the Roman poet Lucius Apuleius in the 2nd century. It describes how the lovers find each other against all odds. In one of the most famous scenes, which was a popular pictorial motif, Cupid surprises the naked Psyche in her sleep. Alphonse Legros shows the moment when Cupid discovers her and wakes her by touching her with his arrow.
Although the naturalistic depiction of the body was perfectly permissible in classical contexts at the end of the 19th century, the depicted nudity of Psyche and Cupid offended the sensibilities of contemporaries. When the painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1867, some of the reviewers were particularly outraged by the female figure in Legros’ painting. They found it disturbing, as it did not correspond to the expected classical and idealized appearance. In their eyes, the artist was depicting an “ordinary naked young woman”.

Millais’ naturalistic approach has been compared to the continental practice of idealizing the nude and placing it in a classical context, as was done by British artists such as Frederic Leighton and Albert Moore. Indeed, Millais was attempting to revive the early Victorian tradition of the ‘English’ nude begun by William Etty, an artist whom Millais admired and whose technique and richness of color he sought to emulate in this painting. The ambivalence of the motif was problematic. X-rays of the painting show that the woman’s head and upper body were originally turned towards the knight, creating eye contact. This would have significantly altered the interaction between the two characters and given the woman an active role. Millais later reworked the painting so that the woman now turns away in shame.

This work is known as one of the most dramatic and powerful images in Frederic Leighton’s late œuvre. The scene depicts the resurrection of the dead as described in the Book of Revelation in the Bible: The dead rise from graves and the ocean. Their posture and incarnation convey the stages of resurrection, from the limpness and pallor of death to the power of new life. The work was originally intended as one of eight tondi with themes from the Apocalypse that Leighton was to create for the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. However, after the sketches were rejected as “unsuitable for a Christian church”, Henry Tate commissioned this reduced version for his collection of British art.