On this day, which celebrates love, Canvas explores the subject of artists’ love in art and love of art.
Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind, thus the reason Renaissance painter Piero della Francesca painted his winged Cupid blind.
Our focus as artists, as we work with visual images, is on what meets the eye. But there is another ingredient that makes artwork masterful and is beyond what is seen: love. Love in making art is the alchemical force that has produced a legacy of enduring work that has touched hearts around the globe for centuries.
Whether we are capturing traditional representations of romantic love, a landscape, a portrait, or a religious narrative, the artist is transmitting a love of their subject, of the medium, and a love for the viewer.
Once, while at the Getty Museum, I asked the museum guard which was her favorite piece of art in the building, she told me, “The Farewell of Telemachus and Eucharis.” I said, “So you’re a romantic,” she blushed, giggled, and agreed.
On view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the painting Springtime, 1873, by Pierre-Auguste Cot seems the quintessential image of youthful innocence and romance, with a composition of legs entwined in a forest clearing.
The Kiss ”El Beso”, by Francesco Hayez, in 1859, of a clandestine kiss, was a political statement about the repression of the nationalist movement. Interestingly, this theme echos one of the legends surrounding Saint Valentine, who then a priest, defied the imperial decree outlawing marriages because unmarried soldiers could better concentrate on soldiering without the distraction of family. Valentine married the couples in secret and was eventually executed for his insubordination, making him the ultimate rebel romantic martyr for God and man.
The heightened passion of forbidden love is depicted here in The Meeting on Turret Stairs, 1864 (below) a watercolor painting by Frederic William Burton in the National Gallery of Ireland and, like Romeo and Juliette, represents forbidden love and longing.
The subject of the painting is the story of the illicit love of Hellelil and her personal guard Hildebrand, Prince of Engelland. Her father disapproved of the relationship and ordered her seven brothers to kill the young prince. This is how Burton envisioned their last meeting before the tragic end.
These paintings can engender a bashful or boastful aspiration for the adolescent, a fond nostalgic memory of innocent love from a mature viewer, a camaraderie of longing, or perhaps, for the wounded or cynical of heart, a sweet taste of amour, if only fleeting.
The Irish poet and philosopher John O’Donohue expressed the idea of beauty as an embrace, as from a loved one:
“Beautiful, there is a sense of homecoming. Some of our most wonderful memories are beautiful places where we felt immediately at home. We feel most alive in the presence of the Beautiful for it meets the needs of our soul. For a while the strains of struggle and endurance are relieved and our frailty is illuminated by a different light in which we come to glimpse behind the shudder of appearances and sure form of things. In the experience of beauty we awaken and surrender in the same act. Beauty brings a sense of completion and sureness. Without any of the usual calculation, we can slip into the Beautiful with the same ease as we slip into the seamless embrace of water; something ancient within us already trusts that this embrace will hold us.”
O’Donohue adds, “One could write a philosophy of beauty using the family of concepts which includes glimpse, glance, touch, taste and whisper, all of which suggest a special style of attention which is patient and reverent, content with a suggestion or a clue and then willing, through its own imagination, to fill out the invitation to beauty.”
Rumi makes the connection between love, beauty and making art, “In your light I learn how to love. In your beauty, how to make poems. You dance inside my chest where no-one sees you, but sometimes I do, and that sight becomes this art.”
Romantic love holds a precious place in the human imagination and experience, but in addition to portraying the subject of love, artists bring a love of life and the human experience to the viewer that is invaluable.
Once during an interview, actor and comedian Bill Murray was asked was there a moment in life where art really mattered and made a difference for you? He answered with a story about first starting out in Chicago, and failing miserably. He was wandering the city streets of Chicago with all hope lost, when he wandered into the Art Institute of Chicago where he came upon, The Song of the Lark, by Jules Breton, depicting a peasant woman in the field as the sun is rising. “I have always loved this painting,” says Murray, “And I saw it this day and I thought, there’s a girl that doesn’t have a whole lot of prospects, but the sun is coming up anyway, and she has another chance at it.” It restored his hope, and according to Murray, “The feeling that, I too am a person, and get another chance everyday the sun comes up.”
So on a day set aside to honor love, it is also a time to recognize and pay homage to an artists’ love of their craft, and their ongoing love affair with humanity, the natural world, and life itself.
“Love is not an emotion, it is your very existence,” says Rumi.
By extension, our love of craft and life helps humanity maintain and renew their love of life.