Whether a tragedy or stolen kisses in the night, we love a good romantic painting. Some are inspired by myths and legends, personal heartaches, or a desire to challenge convention. Nevertheless, these artworks pull at the heartstrings. Love has always been a great inspiration for many artists. Here are 5 tragically romantic artworks that will have you grabbing tissues.
1. Greek Tragedy in a Romantic Painting
The Farewell of Telemachus and Eucharis by Jacques-Louis David follows the story of a young hero, Telemachus. The story goes that Telemachus, the son of Penelope and Odysseus, was sent to the island of Calypso to find his father. While shipwrecked on the island, Telemachus stumbled across the path of a beautiful nymph, Eucharis. It is unknown to him, but Telemachus fell for Eucharis with the help of the meddling Cupid. Calypso, ever the jealous enchantress, was determined to keep the lovers apart. On top of that, Telemachus was reminded that he had a mission to complete: finding his father.
The tragic story has its roots in literature. Painted in 1818, this romantic painting was inspired by the 1699 French novel Les Aventures de Telemaque by Francois Fenelon, which was, in turn, inspired by the Greek myth of the Odyssey. While Eucharis doesn’t appear in Homer’s Odyssey, she does make a grander appearance in Les Aventures de Telemaque, and it’s most likely the novel directly inspired David’s romantic painting. Fenelon’s novel was a hit in the 18th and 19th centuries and inspired a wave of romantic artworks during this time.
It’s not surprising that the French artist painted The Farewell of Telemachus while he was in exile in Brussels as he was known to be anti-social. Greco-Roman art influenced David’s style and his paintings often depict scenes of antiquity. The Farewell of Telemachus and Eucharis is David’s most tender and innocent depiction of two lovers. For this reason, the romantic painting stands out from the rest of his work.
2. Two Lovers share a Cloak
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In one of the most recognized romantic artworks around the world, Austrian artist Gustav Klimt portrays two lovers embracing. The couple kneels on a patch of wildflowers and their bodies share a cloak, binding the pair together. Her eyes are shut, and her face is presented to her lover, who plants a kiss on her cheek. The Kiss allows the audience to view an intimate moment between two lovers.
Painted in 1908, The Kiss would be Klimt’s last painting from his Gold Period. Klimt’s paintings from this period were lavished with golden leaves. Klimt was the son of a goldsmith and engraver. Klimt’s most celebrated period was inspired by Byzantine art. In 1903, Klimt was exposed to the mosaics of Byzantine art while on a trip to Ravenna, Italy. It would be the San Vitale, a church adorned in gold tiles symbolizing Christian piety, that would inspire Klimt.
The romantic painting may seem tame to the 21st-century audience, but it was thought of as too raunchy for the post-Victorian era. Nevertheless, the painting was sold to the Belvedere Museum of Vienna before it was even completed. A group of artists in the movement known as the Vienna Secession challenged Austrian conservatism. The group aimed to bring progressive and international art to a contemporary audience in Vienna. Along with Klimt, the Secessionists included Koloman Moser and Josef Hoffman, among others.
The woman rumored to be in The Kiss is Emilie Flöge, who had been making waves in Vienna for her uncorseted fashion sense. In their own way, the pair were looking to break through Viennese repression. Previous to The Kiss, Klimt would be accused of manufacturing pornography with his three-part series the “Vienna Ceiling.” Really, Klimt just wanted to show harmless affection and couldn’t seem to catch a break.
3. A Romantic Artwork Immortalized in Stone
If there ever was a tragic romance that compared to Romeo and Juliet, it would be the story of two lovers, Paolo and Francesca. While Shakespeare’s teen lovers weren’t cast down to hell, these two were, with their kiss being immortalized in this romantic artwork. Depicted in Auguste Rodin’s The Kiss are true lovers Paolo Malatesta and Francesca da Rimini, two adulterous lovers from Dante’s Inferno. The lovers are caught and slain by Francesca’s husband, the crippled Giovanni Malatesta da Rimini. To make the situation worse, Francesca’s husband happened to be Paolo’s brother. Their relationship took off as they read love stories together. Rodin chose not to depict the lovers in the second circle of hell when Dante meets the pair, but rather in their first embrace, their first kiss. In the epic poem, an eternal wind pushes and beats them, symbolizing their passionate love.
Rodin created three full-scale versions of The Kiss. This romantic artwork was supposed to be a part of Rodin’s Gates of Hell series, but the final execution didn’t fit in with the frightful scenes of hell. Instead, Rodin chose to exhibit the piece alone where it was praised by an audience who could project themselves onto the happy lovers’ place. Female sexuality interested Rodin and he explored it in this romantic artwork. The Kiss is evident of a woman reciprocating a man’s sexual desires. While the young, supple body of these sensuous lovers enjoying a tender embrace scandalized American society, the French government ordered its own copy. Though it took Rodin nearly 10 years to deliver the commission, we’re certain the French government was satisfied to own this prized piece.
4. In Hell in the Name of Love
It was a romance that inspired the lines “love that moves the sun and other stars,” and a romantic painting by Henry Holiday. When Dante Alighieri met Beatrice di Folco Portinari, he became infatuated with her. They met at nine years old at the Chiesa di Santa Margherita dei Cerchi church. Dante’s affection for Beatrice, which evolved into love, burned strong even after her death. Unfortunately, his affection was not returned. Henry Holiday depicts the exact moment Beatrice fails to acknowledge Dante as she walks with her female companions across the Santa Trinita Bridge in Florence. This subtle burn was due to a misunderstanding.
Despite Dante being married off to a woman in 1285, and Beatrice to another man in 1287, his love for her continued in the form of poetry. Dante wrote Vita Nuova as a narrative dedicated to his love. The Divine Comedy is dedicated to his muse and inspiration, Beatrice. In the epic poem, she appears to guide Dante through heaven. In preparation for Dante and Beatrice, Henry Holiday went so far as to travel to Florence to do accurate research. Holiday was a member of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, who dedicated themselves to the colorful and complex compositions of Pre-Raphaelite art. In Dante and Beatrice, Monna Vanna dresses in red while the maidservant is clad in blue. In the middle stands Beatrice in white, looking away from Dante. Holiday’s romantic painting inspired by the two Italian lovers highlights Dante’s love and loss in bright, rich colors favored by the Pre-Raphaelites.
5. A Romantic Painting from a Rebel
Salvator Rosa’s Hero and Leander celebrates the story of two Greek lovers. Greek myths are dominated by gods and goddesses looking to rule over the mortal world. There were times they dabbled in the lives of men, let their emotions blind them, and, thus, seek revenge. With such a capacity for emotional turmoil, these deities don’t seem much different than a mortal, perhaps.
Rosa’s Hero and Leander is a romantic painting inspired by love gone array. Hero, a priestess of Aphrodite, was a maiden admired for her chastity and beauty. While Hero lived in Sestos, Leander lived in the nearby city of Abydos. The two crossed paths when, at the festival of Aphrodite, Leander came through Sestos, and the pair unavoidably fell for each other. Just like Romeo and Juliet came from two opposite worlds, so did Hero and Leander. A priestess couldn’t get married to a foreigner, but this didn’t keep Leander from sneaking up to Hero’s sleeping quarters and asking her to light a lamp that would guide him across the strait.
The ritual continued secretly and at length until winter came around, and by this time the wind blew harder, the waters became rougher. But Leander’s devotion to Hero was so much that he prevailed through the water each time. Then, one night, the wind managed to extinguish the lamp and caused Leander to drown in the raging waters. Upon seeing his body in the water, Hero drowned herself. Such was the passion and heartache of love.
The story has all the characteristics of a romantic artwork. The romantic painting hadn’t always been considered a Rosa original, and it was only recently that it’d been attributed to him and his Florentine period. Ever the artistic rebel, Rosa painted artworks inspired by myth and allegory. In Naples, Rome, and Florence, he was known for being a difficult artist to work with. He made many enemies in the art world due to his outspoken nature. No matter the subject Rosa took on, from Romantic paintings to religious scenes, he painted so he could be “carried away by the transports of enthusiasm.” So, too, did the tragedy of Hero and Leander inspire the artist.