The Many Sides of Love

Paintings whose vibrant subjects tell us their stories of love, lust and loss.

Whether stories of passion, heartbreak, infidelity, or lasting love, paintings give us back an image of our deepest desires. Here are a few worth a look and read.

Love’s Mystery

Love, for all its wonder, can often leave us feeling misunderstood. Such seems to be the case with this couple, shown here in a painting by Spanish artist Cecilio Pla (Valencia, 1859 - Madrid, 1934). Originally trained as a musician, Pla was clearly adept at depicting the delicate dance of love. Though initially drawn to history painting, Pla’s work from this period often displays realistic scenes with a social message. The message here seems to boil down to this: “Love is hard!”

Céfiro and Flora, couple in a garden (From the collection of Museo de Cadiz)

Love’s Intense

The story behind this painting is one of true love and collaboration—in both life and art! These Danish painters met in Paris in 1889, with the older painter, Peder Severin Kroyer, falling instantly in love with the beguiling young Marie. They married shortly thereafter and honeymooned in Italy, visiting the town of Ravello, where this portrait was likely painted.

Double portrait of Marie and P.S. Krøyer. The couple have portrayed one another, 1890 (From the collection of Skagens Museum)

Alas, in the end, their love would not last. Peder succumbed to bouts of mental illness, and Marie began an affair with Swedish composer Hugo Alfven, eventually becoming pregnant and divorcing Peder.

Love’s Nurturing

Maternal love has been depicted for millenium in every artistic movement and style. Ranging from religious art to portrait art, mother and child have always held a firm role on canvas. This depiction of mother and child from Central Africa is no exception. Galilée Hervé Ndoma wonderfully captures the essence of love through the eyes of mother and child.

GaliléE Hervé Ndoma - Central African Maternal Love (From the collection of Imago Mundi)

Love’s Blind

At first glance, this appears to be an ordinary portrait of an odd couple with an age gap and nothing more. But look closely at this painting, and you’ll notice something strange: the much older, nearly-toothless woman appears to be slipping some coins into the young man’s hand—he’s a gigolo! This is part of a series of moralistic portraits by 16th-century German Renaissance painter, Louis Cranach the Elder, all testifying to the fact (while also clearly condemning it) that, perhaps, “Money can buy love.”

The Ill-Matched Couple, Lucas Cranach the Elderca, 1520–1522 (From the collection of Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest)

Love’s Playful

It can be considered one of the greatest loves of all, that between siblings. It is a love that begins at birth and grows with time. This depiction of a brother and sister paddling their feet by the shore is typical of Edward Henry Potthast whose Impressionist paintings who was known to capture every day moments of people at play. This oil on canvas painting gives us a brief glimpse into an eternal bond.

Brother and Sister, by Edward Henry Potthast, circa 1915 (From the collection of Cincinnati Art Museum)

Love’s Privacy

Lovers have long been famous for being so smitten that they “only have eyes for each other.” In this modern woodcut from 1902 by Norwegian artist Edvard Munch (1863-1944), for the lovers shown here, no one else exists. Most famous for his 1893 painting of existential despair and alienation titled The Scream, this woodcut is part of a series of four completed between 1897-1902 that appear to show the opposite of such isolation, focusing instead on connection and mutually-expressed desire.

Kiss IV, by Edvard Munch, 1902 (From the collection of The Munch Museum, Oslo)

Love’s Seduction

The gossamer-like quality of the nude woman who leans up out of the water to kiss the sailor, who in turn leans down toward her, perfectly captures the seductive power of love, but it also displays its potential dangers. The woman is a siren, a mythical creature whose purpose was to tempt sailors to their doom on the rocks. The alabaster-skinned seductress coaxing men into her watery world was a frequent motif in the paintings of Gustav Wertheimer, a 19th-century Austrian associated with German symbolism.

The Kiss of the Siren, Gustav Wertheimer (German, 1847-1902), 1882 (From the collection of the Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields)

Love’s Variety

In this painting by Austrian Expressionist Egon Schiele, the two female lovers confront us with their unapologetically frank display of affection. At the time of this painting (1915), Schiele had just married Edith Harms, so love and lovers were much on his mind. In addition, lesbianism was a frequent subject in his work of the period, and displays of what would have been considered at the time “deviant” sexuality reflected the decadence of the Viennese social milieu.

Two Women Embracing, by Egon Schiele, 1915 (From the collection of Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest)

Love’s Selfish

Have you ever fallen in love with someone who loved themselves more than they loved you? That’s what happened to poor Echo. Shown here in a version by English painter John William Waterhouse (1849-1917), in the original Ovidian myth, Echo had fallen for the handsome Narcissus only to discover he was the original “selfish lover”. He wished to gaze only at his own reflection. Feeling the sting of unrequited love, she wasted away until nothing but the whisper of her voice was left behind. Needless to say, Echo is off online dating sites for the time being.

Echo and Narcissus, by John William Waterhouse, 1903 (From the collection of Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool)
Written by Andrew Mulvania
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