Story: Pham Minh Quan

“A kiss is the language of eternal love, and its portrayal can be found in every art movement.”

Gustav Klimt, The Kiss, 1908

Love abides as the perhaps most classic theme in art history, as artistic creation itself grows from a love for art. Within love, we experience different emotions: elevated happiness (“The greatest happiness of life is the conviction that we are loved” – Victor Hugo) or deep anguish (“To love is to die a little in your heart/For when you love, can you be sure you’re loved?” – Xuan Dieu). It has remained a never-ending source of inspiration for artists, who have found various ways to depict love through their works.

While marriage is frequently associated with love, it is not the dominant theme in artistic representations throughout the centuries. That said, one of the most famous early works portraying love is the Arnolfini Wedding, a 1434 oil painting by the Northern Renaissance painter Jan van Eyck. In this painting, the couple’s happiness and love vows are represented in the act of holding hands, which becomes a popular motif in later works. These include the Honeysuckle Bower (1609), a self-portrait by the Baroque old master Peter Paul Rubens and his wife and the Jewish Wife (circa 1665-1669) by the Golden Age Dutch painter Rembrandt.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, a Flemish Renaissance artist in the 16 th century famous for his lively paintings of peasant life, took to the marriage subject with The Wedding Dance (1566) and Peasant Wedding (1567). These two works vividly portray rustic weddings through the festivities of eating and dancing.

ean-Honoré Fragonard, The Progress of Love , 1771-72

The Progress of Love by the French Rococo artist Jean-Honoré Fragonard is a groundbreaking series of paintings that depict and evoke love. Just as the name indicates, the series, painted between 1771 and 1772, represents four stages of love: the lovesick (the girl dreams of the man), the meeting (the lover scales the garden wall), the marriage(the girl crowns her lover with roses) and the enjoyment (reading of love letters).

However, love is not always a bed of roses. In contrast to passionate love portrayed in Western works, Japanese artists take on a different approach: the sorrow of loneliness, the unhappy ending of love, or loneliness in love. This melancholy is prominent in Suzuki Harunobu’s ukiyo-e print Lovers Walking in the Snow (circa 1762-1772).

A kiss is the language of eternal love, and its portrayal can be found in every art movement: Romanticism with The Kiss (1859) by Francesco Hayez; Post-impressionism with In Bed the Kiss (1892) by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec; Symbolism with The Kiss (1897) by Edvard Munch and The Kiss (1908) by Gustav Klimt; Cubism and Expressionism with The Birthday (1915) by Marc Chagall; Surrealism with The Lovers (1928) by Rene Magritte.

Vu Cao Dam, Idylle, 1969

Due to the influence of Confucianism, love, and marriage, which are considered personal matters, are less frequent topics in the visual arts and other pre-modern and early modern forms in Vietnam. The most recognizable expression of this theme is the Dong Ho painting Mice Wedding. The work itself, however, is more a depiction of ancient wedding customs and a critique of old feudalism than a portrayal of love. Other prominent works in which love and marriage are featured include Kim Van Kieu (circa 1932-1935) by Le Pho, illustrating the famous love story of Thuy Kieu and Kim Trong; Noi hen ho – Rendezvous (1969) by Vu Cao Dam; and Nguyet Uoc – Moon’s Wishes (1987) by Nguyen Tu Nghiem.

Today, love remains a popular theme that artists freely explore through all manner of media and means of expression. Each artist’s love story is unique, yet the power of love is universal and reverberates across time and cultures.