The art of love: 14 works that make our hearts beat faster
From Cupid to Kahlo to Keats — the artworks and objects that encapsulate the power of love
‘Cupid, the son of Venus, is the ultimate poster boy for Valentine’s Day. This Roman marble figure, dating to the 1st century AD, is modelled after a Greek bronze original made by the Greek sculptor Lysippos in the 4th century BC, and depicts the young god of love in the act of restringing his famous bow.
‘It is an image filled with anticipation: for whom is his next irresistible arrow destined? For me this artwork is testimony to our enduring fascination with the invincible, inscrutable power of love.’
‘A Foregone Conclusion (1885) by Lawrence Alma Tadema shows a Victorian courtship ritual set in the Classical world. As a young suitor climbs a set of marble stairs towards his lover and her attendant, he nervously fingers an engagement ring. The title of the work, however, lets the audience know the proposal will have a happy outcome.
‘The picture was commissioned by Sir Henry Tate, founder of the eponymous gallery in London, as a wedding present for his second wife Amy Hislop. In her will she gifted it back it to the institution that bears his name.’
‘For centuries artists have sought to venerate the act of falling in love, but Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ “Untitled” (Perfect Lovers) from 1991, is one of the few works that seeks to represent love in all its imperfect glory.
‘Initially set to the same time, these two identical inexpensive battery-powered clocks will — over time — fall out of sequence, before eventually being reset and coming back into alignment again. A poignant and powerful metaphor not only for the passing of time, but also for the often imperfect, yet enduring nature of love.’
‘Gustav Klimt was one of art’s great sensualists, and few pictures express the rapturous union of two people quite like his painting, The Kiss.
‘A man and woman are wrapped in a richly-embellished, gold robe. She seems to be kneeling, he seems to bend his head to kiss her — though it’s near-impossible to tell where her body ends and his begins.
In an oft-quoted remark, Klimt said that “all art is erotic”. No painting sums this up better than The Kiss.’
‘I discovered one of the most touching relics of love a few years ago when I walked into the great gothic fortress of Chichester Cathedral, near England’s south coast. There lies Richard Fitzwilliam and his wife Eleanor, side by side, his right hand ungloved and lightly resting in hers, bonded together in this stone tomb for eternity.
‘I later found out that the monument inspired a poem by Philip Larkin, with the immortal final line, “What will survive of us is love.”’
‘“As a kid I liked Valentine’s Day, not because I was in love, necessarily, but because I liked the redness of it,” the American Pop artist Jim Dine once explained. In the 1960s he began looking for a way to create a self-portrait without painting his likeness. He wanted a shape that symbolised his creativity and passion: “a template for my emotions”.
‘Dine chose a heart, and for more than half a century, this endlessly prolific artist has portrayed the shape in numerous ways. The Beast (1999), is a gutsy version, vibrantly red and pulsating with life.’
‘A thing of beauty is a joy for ever’, begins John Keats’s Endymion, a poem about the journey to win the love of the moon goddess Cynthia. This first-edition copy, published in London in 1818, is itself a thing of remarkable beauty.
‘It shines in a spectacular binding by T.J. Cobden-Sanderson, the foremost English bookbinder of the late-19th century, whose design of gilt moons and hearts reflects the central theme of love in this Romantic poet’s finest love poem.’
‘Freud’s portraits of Lady Caroline Blackwood are some of the most intimate and moving depictions of an intense young love affair. Freud created various portraits throughout their relationship from 1950 until they separated in 1956, and although the portraits were at one stage thought aggressive, almost brutal in the way that they made a young girl seem older, they have since come to be seen as among the artist’s most tender and beautiful works.
‘I love the idea of a young Freud and Lady Caroline Blackwood meeting at a formal ball, and shortly after, Caroline moving into Freud’s studio in West London. In 1952 they eloped to Paris, living for a year at the Hôtel la Louisiane. It was during this time that Freud created some of his most delicate portraits, including Girl Reading — a private moment of reflection, captured in a way that only a loved one could.’
‘This Patek Philippe enamel dome clock tells the story of Endymion, a handsome young shepherd prince who is adored by the moon goddess, Selene [also known as Cynthia]. One panel shows Cupid striking an arrow towards the couple in an evening setting. The young prince has been cast into eternal sleep by Selene so that she can kiss him every night without being seen.
‘Most of these solar-clocks were commissioned by their owners to represent certain stories or their favourite motifs — in this case, bewitching love.’
‘Locked in a tender embrace, this young female couple are seemingly oblivious to the clamour of the outside world. Painted by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec in 1892, it is one of a series of four beguiling pictures depicting lesbian lovers in bed.
‘Lautrec was fascinated with Paris’s demi-monde, painting as many as 70 pictures of prostitutes. For me this is one of Lautrec’s most sensual, as it beautifully captures a forbidden love.’
‘I think this picture brilliantly represents the complex love between Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. Painted shortly after the couple’s first marriage, Kahlo’s wedding portrait is a love letter to her husband, and Diego appears as a towering giant; a genius holding his palette and wearing the high-waisted pants and jacket that he donned as a militant uniform.
‘The couple’s bond is represented by the gesture of their two hands, yet their clasp is tentative, suggesting the problematic nature of their relationship. In the picture Frida is seemingly content to play the role of the adoring wife, and while her dainty figure and diminutive feet suggest vulnerability, ultimately, as always, she was fully in control of her narrative.’
‘It’s very rare to encounter such an affectionate and intimate scene in Congolese art. These figures, with their hands resting on each other’s shoulders, make a beautiful couple, expressing feelings of unity and harmony.
‘This type of Congolese sculpture was associated with the Lemba society, and celebrates their view of stable marriage as a requirement for a successful life.’
‘Peter Hujar met poet and visual artist David Wojnarowicz in 1980, a year before he made this portrait in his East Village studio. When I look at this picture, which was recently on show at the Jeu de Paume in Paris, I see the love between two people, both estranged from their birth families, left to build their own families within their marginalised community.
‘Wojnarowicz was diagnosed with AIDS shortly after Hujar’s own AIDS-related death in 1987. In an interview Wojnarowicz once said, “Everything I made, I made for Peter.”’
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‘My wife and I had a rather prophetic encounter with one particular painting in 2012 when we were in Switzerland and went to visit the Fondation Pierre Gianadda in Martigny. There, in a corner, was a picture by Vincent van Gogh, that had such a strange draw for us. My wife even posed with it for a photo.
‘Painted during his time in Arles, it embodies his energy and optimism of that period. It is one of three versions that he completed in December 1888. Two were sold through Theo van Gogh in Paris and ended up in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and the National Gallery in Washington. The artist presented this one to the family of the sitter. Three days after this chance encounter we found out my wife was pregnant with our first child.’