A familiar figure in classic mythology was that of the little god of love, Cupid. He was the son of Venus, and, like her, was concerned in the affairs of the heart. Ancient art represented him as a beautiful naked boy with wings, carrying a bow and quiver of arrows, and sometimes a burning torch. The torch was to kindle the flame of love, and the arrows were to pierce the heart with the tender passion. These missiles were made at the forge of Vulcan, where Venus first imbued them with honey, after which Cupid, the mischievous fellow, tinged them with gall. Thus it was that the wounds they inflicted were at once sweet and painful.
Now Cupid was always bent upon some of his naughty pranks. He was afraid of nothing, and we read of his riding on the backs of lions and sporting with the monsters of the deep. He played all sorts of tricks on the gods, stealing the arms of Hercules, and even breaking the thunderbolts of Jove. His bow and arrows were a source of great amusement to him. He delighted in taking aim at unsuspecting mortals, and his random shots often wrought sad havoc.
One of Anacreon's odes relates how the poet was awakened on a rainy midnight by the cry of a child begging shelter. The little waif proved to be Cupid in disguise. After being warmed and dried by the fire, the boy artfully craved permission to try his bow, to see if the rain had injured its elasticity. The arrow flew straight at the poet's heart with a sweet pain, and away flew Cupid laughing gayly at his exploit
Cupid was naturally a very popular god, yet his tricksy ways caused him to be looked upon with suspicion. Every one was anxious to stand well with him. In some of the cities of ancient Greece, as Sparta and Athens, he was worshipped with great solemnity, and every five years festivals were held in his honor.
In our picture the painter has represented the little torch-bearing god disguised as a link boy. He is dressed in the clothes of a London street urchin, and behind him are the warehouses of the great city.
The link bearer's occupation was abandoned so long ago that it needs a word of explanation. In the old times, before there were stationary street lights of any kind, men and boys used to run about by night, carrying torches or links, as they were called, to lighten the way for passers-by.
They were like the newsboys of to-day, running up to each wayfarer to offer their services, and always glad to pick up a few pennies. They accompanied parties home from the clubs, the theatres, and all sorts of entertainments, running beside carriages, as well as foot passengers. Nor was their occupation solely by night. There sometimes came suddenly in London a thick fog, shutting out the sunlight as completely as if it had been night. People caught in the streets at such times soon lost their way, and the services of the link boy were then very useful.
We may now understand what a capital chance for fun Cupid would have, playing the part of a link boy. The strangers whom he guided on their way would little suspect that the link boy's torch was kindling the flame of love within them. He might lead them whither he pleased, and finally, disclosing his true identity, would draw his bow upon them and leave them to their fate.
It is perhaps after some such escapade as this that we see him in the picture, link in hand, pausing to look back with a smile of suppressed amusement at some of his victims. It seems very odd to find Cupid in such surroundings, and especially to see the little god hampered by the clumsy garments of mortals. They are old and ragged, the cast-off finery such as is picked up by street gamins. The child's hair is tossed about his head in unkempt locks, and altogether he looks the part to perfection.
Yet there are unmistakable signs of his identity in the wings spread from his shoulders. If you look closely, too, you can see through the rip in his sleeve the quiver of arrows which the sly fellow thought to hide under his coat. The face and expression could belong alone to Cupid. The mouth is shaped in a genuine Cupid's bow, and the pointed chin shows his astuteness. Mischief lurks in the corners of the eyes and in the curve of his mouth.
The Cupid as Link Boy is one of a number of fancy pictures which Sir Joshua Reynolds painted for his own pleasure. His portrait orders were nearly all from the wealthy and aristocratic classes, and the artist would not have been content without a greater variety of subjects than this work afforded. He had a fertile imagination for ideal or "fancy" subjects, particularly for those of a humorous nature. Often when he chanced to be driving through the streets his attention would be attracted by some little waif, and he would take the child back to his studio for a model. Our picture is from one of these mischievous London street boys, whose face reappears in several other works.