At Large  February 14, 2020  Cynthia Close

Finding Love in Art History

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Caravaggio, Love Conquers All (Amor Vincit Omnia) (detail)1601–1602.

As the trappings of December holidays fade, February has become saturated in red, a heart drenched month drowning in the symbol of love, but don’t blame it on Hallmark. The origins of the heart shape as a universal love icon and a casually used emoticon sprinkled around social media are debatable. Historians and anthropologists believe it may have roots in either plant forms or the buttocks and breasts of the human body going back to the last ice age and appearing again in art in the first century A.D.

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Giotto Scrovegni, Allegories of the Virtues: Karitas (Charity), c. 1305.

Love letters abound in literature written by the famous and the not so famous. How Do I Love Thee? a sonnet by Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861) may be one of the most quoted poems about love ever written and visual artists have been driven by love and desire to create memorable works of art for centuries. Here are 10 artists whose work transcends a momentary Valentine’s Day infatuation to become celebrated odes to love.

One of the earliest depictions of the heart as a sacrificial symbol of love by an artist is Giotto di Bondone’s (1267-1337) Charity seen here giving her upside-down heart to Christ in this work in Italy’s Scrovegni Chapel (Padua). It is notable that the Catholic church removed Saint Valentine’s Day from the liturgical calendar in 1969, due in part to its pagan roots.

The Little Book of Love (Petit Livre d’Amour) a diminutive manuscript by the 16th century poet Pierre Sala was a delightful gift to his lover and future wife Marguerite Bullioud. Illuminated by an artist identified as the “Master of Chronique Candaleuseas” who created several images where the heart appears as a love offering like this one showing Pierre dropping his heart into a flower known as a marguerite.

The British Library

Pierre Sala, The Little Book of Love (Petit Livre d’Amour), early 16th century.

Leonardo di Vinci (1452-1519) explored the biological science of the heart in his detailed anatomical drawings as well as the emotional essence of mother and child love in paintings of the Madonna like this one from 1490:

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Leonardo da Vinci, Madonna Litta (Madonna and the Child), c. 1490.

Cupid is another player in our history of love and art perhaps never more provocatively painted than by Caravaggio (1571-1610) in Love Conquers All (Amor Vincit Omnia). Caravaggio’s tumultuous and short life was lived with passion and that passion was reflected in his art.

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Caravaggio, Love Conquers All (Amor Vincit Omnia), 1601–1602.

Aphrodite is the Greek goddess of love and beauty. The Romans called her Venus. Both have been frequently referred to throughout art history. The Rokeby Venus (1647) by Velázquez combines a cherubic Cupid holding a mirror reflecting the face of a lovely, naked young Venus whose heart-shaped backside fills the lower foreground of the painting.

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Diego Velázquez, Rokeby Venus, c. 1647–51.

French artist Jean-Léon Gérôme painted numerous versions of Pygmalion and Galatea (1890). Cupid floats nearby as the alabaster sculpture comes alive, responding to the artists embrace. This is one of the sexiest examples of a self-portrait depicting an artist in love with his creation.

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Jean-Léon Gérôme, Pygmalion and Galatea, c. 1890.

Lovers of the Street (1900) is an early Picasso painting showing a couple embracing. Married twice with four children by three women, the major creative periods of Picasso’s life were defined by his diverse love interests.

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Argentinian Surrealist Leonor Fini (1907-1996) embodied a life of love in all its forms. Unconventional barely begins to describe this rebellious, self-taught artists life and work. Selflove in the androgynous, soft focus Narcissise Incomparable (1971), and lesbian love in Girl Friends (1952) are just two examples of her staunchly independent views of what constitutes a love relationship.

Surrealism provides a playground for the darker side of love explored by many artists including Salvador Dali, Andre Masson, Paul Delvaux, and Rene Magritte. In The Lovers (1928) Magritte focuses the image on the heads of a male and female couple hidden under a shroud-like veil while locked in a kiss. The male is in a slightly dominant position and the top curves of their draped heads suggest a heart shape. Is Magritte exploiting the titillating aspect of anonymity in love, or our inability to ever truly know another, or perhaps the connection between love and death? The answer is left for us to decide.

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Rene Magritte, The Lovers, 1928.

MacArthur “Genius” Award-winning artist Kerry James Marshall creates the expectation and doubt that are often part of the mating ritual of love in his 1992 painting Slow Dance. Marshall dissects the elements and artistic decisions he employs to build the work including scenes from movies that made an impact on his thinking about romance and love. Although informed by black history, politics, and black culture, this work speaks in the universal language of love.

About the Author

Cynthia Close

Cynthia Close holds a MFA from Boston University, was an instructor in drawing and painting, Dean of Admissions at The Art Institute of Boston, founder of ARTWORKS Consulting, and former executive director/president of Documentary Educational Resources, a film company. She was the inaugural art editor for the literary and art journal Mud Season Review. She now writes about art and culture for several publications.

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