Valentine’s Day: painted across the ages

For this special occasion, Visual Arts contributors contemplate love’s meaning in art

‘The Kiss’ (Edvard Munch): By

What is the essence of love? Questions as subjective as this tends to pose interesting debates, and since we are nearing Valentine’s Day, I have decided to come up with a personal answer with the help of one specific artist. Edvard Munch, who you most likely know from his anguish-filled masterpiece, ‘The Scream’, proclaimed in his manifesto he would paint “living people who breathe and feel and suffer and love”. In other words, he vowed to never beat around the bush, when it came to discussing romance, having himself dealt with numerous tumultuous relationships.

Physical touch whether it be mere embrace or in this painting’s case, a passionate kiss

This is all foregrounded in his lesser-known canvas piece ‘The Kiss’ from 1897 to perfectly mirror what I believe is the essence of love: physical touch, whether it be mere embrace or in this painting’s case, a passionate kiss.

File:Edvard Munch - The Kiss - Google Art Project.jpg
The Kiss, By Edvard Munch (1897)

Expressionism, the movement Munch foreshadowed, usually dealt with dark, existential themes. As such, his artworks rarely displayed the uplifting emotions that stand out here: ‘The Kiss’ points towards how the shared kiss has brought out feelings of belonging and togetherness for the couple. And it is not only the subject matter that underlines this: all of the formal characteristics of the painting turn towards the theme of love’s intensity. The predominantly mauve, red, and purple colour palette, and the ‘abstract conjoined form’ of the couple are all representative of the euphoria brought by this passionate embrace; the euphoria brought by losing yourself in another’s arms, and feeling the world around you stopping for a brief minute

‘Moroccan Couple’ (Adam Styka): By

French-Polish painter Adam Styka produced many 19th Century-style depictions of Moroccan couples, all employing a similar colour palette and style. While criticisms can easily be made of this work – it displays an Orientalist gaze, particularly evident in the depiction of the scantily-clad female body – yet it still captures the closeness and intimacy of this couple. The woman’s breasts are uncovered, and her accessories are extravagant, yet we cannot help but be drawn in by her eyes and smile. The brightness of her facial expression encapsulates feelings of safety, desire and, above all, love. Similarly, her lover looks upon her with affection and kindness, and there is a confidence in his pose. The couple are at peace together, feeling comfortable with one another. Their bodies almost melt together, into one, through the wavy and indefinite fabrics of their dress.

What is striking to me is how, by looking at each other, the rest of the world seems to fade into the background for these lovers. It is as though nothing else matters; they are transfixed upon one another. I think it is this which makes the painting so beautiful. It demonstrates the love we all desire, the way we all want to be looked at and held.

‘Primavera’ (Sandro Botticelli): By

Sandro Botticelli’s Renaissance masterpiece ‘Primavera’ captures the essence of Valentines through the pastiche of figures from different ancient myths who embody love and longing in their fables. It captures what I believe Valentines represents through Botticelli’s depiction of various forms of love, not just the romantic type, which modern society tends to celebrate as the only present discourse of adoration. For instance, Botticelli’s depiction of Venus alludes to her pregnancy, encapsulating her maternal love for Aeneas, displayed specifically within Virgil’s ‘The Aeneid’.

Encapsulates love’s timeless and universal nature

Furthermore, Cupid is pictured above Venus, blindfolded and pointing arrows at the three graces, representative of the renaissance ideals of feminine virtue. Their interlinked hands and identical elegant drapery signals the unification of these three graces, suggestive of their mutual compatibility. Cupid’s blind aiming at the graces can therefore be read as the display of feminine virtue as what renaissance women should aspire to, in order to attain a fulfilling marriage. It is Botticelli’s employment of this mythology which encapsulates love’s timeless and universal nature.


Image: Edvard Munch, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

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