Susan here – recently we talked about romantic movies in honor of Valentine’s Day – and that got me thinking about imagery, and how very many artworks throughout history express and elicit the same feelings as a book or a movie. A painting, a drawing, a sculpture, a textile, whatever the object may be, can convey a sense of love, affection, attraction, devotion and the many facets of “romance” — and often we understand it in the blink of an eye.
The power of the visual is strong, it's immediate, intuitive. Vision is keyed to receptors in the brain and hot-wired to the heart and the centers of emotion and feeling. Images are shortcuts to understanding messages, content and meaning. We see a work of art and we might experience a quick, subtle or even noticeable emotional response without even knowing the particulars of the subject. We instantly recognize representations (realistic or abstracted) of feelings like love, caring, tenderness, sacrifice, support, sexual magnetism—some of the components of romance—and art works can also make us feel anger, fear, despair, excitement, peacefulness, serenity, safety. Art can elicit primal and subtle emotional responses.
We like or loathe an art piece for intellectual, emotional, personal reasons; we don’t get it—or we connect to it in some way we can’t even explain. And then we have to get that thing framed and hung on our wall where we can see it every day. The image makes us happy, comforts us, encourages us, reminds us of something important. Visual shortcuts are powerful. And this is partly why romance cover art can really speak to us! But today let's look at some — I think – very romantic works of art.
I went searching for art that expresses the sense of romance that we love to explore on this blog as writers, as readers, as women, as ourselves whoever we may be. These are just a few things from various historical eras. Each one stirs up, for me at least, some facet of love and romantic feelings.
You might love these or not quite get them – and you probably have your own favorite images too. If so, please let us know what they are (and share some image links) in the comment section!
King Tutankhamun and his queen, Ankhesenamon, shown on the back of a golden chair found in Tut’s tomb. 18th dynasty. This shows the tenderness and affection between the teenage king and his young half-sister/wife – a sense of emotional intimacy that appears elsewhere in Egyptian art (particularly of this period).
The Arnolfini Portrait, Jan Van Eyck, 1434, National Gallery, London. An enigmatic double portrait of a possible marriage between (tentatively identified) the Bruges merchant Giovanni Arnolfini and his wife (her right hand in his left, the artist’s signature and image in the mirror on the back wall make this a possible legal document; other symbolic representations refer to marriage, loyalty, fertility and so on). Arnolfini was once described by a scholar as “a cold fish,” yet there’s a certain vulnerability and shyness in both groom and bride that is endlessly fascinating, and – even if one just absorbs the exquisite beauty of this little painting– it has a romantic, what-will-happen-to-them sense that captures our curiosity. There is a theory that this is perhaps a memorial portrait of a wife who had died – making this portrait even more romantic and poignant – and certainly less cold than some suggest.
Rembrandt, The Jewish Bride 1667, Rijksmuseum. The subjects of this picture are unknown – perhaps Old Testament figures, which Rembrandt painted often – or perhaps another couple. Whoever they are, the painting of these two is exquisite, rich with a real yet understated emotional content that seems lasting and powerful. There is such love in this painting, from the quiet, protective gestures to the warm lighting—even the build-up of paint on the surface adds layers of golden richness that deepen the emotional content.
Rembrandt, Woman Bathing in a Stream, National Gallery, London. So romantic — and yet there is no pair of lovers, no obvious love-related situation – just Rembrandt’s young mistress, Hendrickje Stoffels, wading into a stream. She’s not the most gorgeous creature, is she. And yet we feel what the artist feels – such love and compassion and admiration for this simple, solid, warm young woman. The lover is not shown in the picture. He is busy painting—and we share his viewpoint.
Antonio Canova, Eros and Psyche, 1787, Louvre. The moment when Eros awakens Psyche from a deep, trancelike sleep–there is such love and tenderness depicted here, and marble seems magically transformed into warm, translucent flesh. Gorgeously captures a delicate moment and exquisite emotions.
Pierre-Auguste Cot, The Storm, 1880, The Metropolitan Museum, NYC. In college, this was the poster I taped on my wall–the young lovers fleeing a storm or some unseen enemy, all gorgeous passion, swirling energy, devotion and the mystery of romance.
Frederick Burton, The Meeting on the Turret Stair, Museum of Ireland, 1864. Poignant and powerful, the last meeting of a couple doomed to be apart–the last touch as they pass each other to be forever separated. The polished realism, the vivid color, the solid figures and the spiral of their bodies all work together to give this image its emotional power.
The Painter's Honeymoon, Lord Fredric Leighton, 1864, Boston MFA. This picture so beautifully conveys a moment of devoted, contented new love — light, textures, the contrast of hard and soft, light and dark, all contribute to the strength and quiet beauty of the image.
The Accolade, Edmund Blair Leighton, 1901, private collection. You probably guessed this one would show up here! This was another poster taped on my college wall for years — a quintessential expression of chivalry and romance–the lady, the knight, a quest, utter loyalty with a subtext of love and attraction — it's all here. Again the light, the textures (her hair and gown are sublimely depicted), the beauty and tenderness of both the knight and the lady convey a strong sense of romance. And what I love best about this image is the lady's strength — a role reversal for this sort of subject in art!
So there you go. I could go on – the images are endless – but those are a few of my personal favorites, and I hope they've been a feast for your eyes – a quick trip through a romantic gallery. Do you have some favorite images too? I'd love to know!