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One of the 3 Faces of Love in Famous Paintings Features on Valentine's Day

Valentine kisses in lipstick


Love, as a subject for artists, remains as popular today as in ages past. Variations include two forms you seldom see in visual art...

Art agrees with philosophy on the 3 major forms of love, named by the Ancient Greeks.

1. Agape: selfless love of your life partner or your family.
2. Philia: bonds of affection for your friends or team-mates.
3. Eros: passionate affection of a sexual nature.

 Art museums display paintings and sculpture depicting human emotions. Variations on the first type of love, Agape, include:

  • Mother-love, as in the 'Pieta' by Michelangelo. Cold marble encapsulates an unforgettable image of Mary holding the dead body of her son on her lap.
  • Father-love, as embodied in Rembrandt's 'Return of the Prodigal.' Canvas and oil paint evokes our recognition of a parent's unconditional love.

The second form, Philia, is difficult to depict in visual fine art.

  • An embrace between friends, of same or opposite sex, may be misread by the viewer. Clues to the real nature of this relationship may be lost in the soundless, motionless media.

Only the third form, Eros, is unambiguous to onlookers.

  • Intense attraction to another and desire to be with that person, despite obstacles to the union, is familiar to us all. The state of 'being in love' was re-named in the 70s by psychologist Dorothy Tennov, who called it 'Limerance.'

Romance is the classical name for the overwhelming, often irrational attraction between lovers. In the words of the song, 'You're not sick, you're just in love.'

  •  The goddess Venus symbolises sexual love as fantasised in the famous painting 'Birth of Venus' by Botticelli.

In literature, from Ancient Greek plays to modern prose poems, some types of love are portrayed more easily in words than in marble or paint.
These include the darker sides, when love deforms into obsession. Think of Shakespeare's Othello, Medea sacrificing her children to possess Jason or parents who betray their daughters for outmoded 'tradition.'

  • The fondness of familiarity with friends or family may become a selfish expectation of preferential treatment whether or not our behaviour warrants it. A comedian described it: 'Home is where, when I knock on the door, they have to let me in.'
  • Self-love was embodied in myth by the youth Narcissus, incapable of loving anything but his own image, mirrored in a lake. Today, such vanity exhibits itself in 'selfies' taken on phone-cameras.
  • Appreciation of your profession might blind you to other people's preferences, as in this quote: 'I believe the visual arts are of vital importance. Of course, I may be prejudiced. I am a visual art.'  Kermit the Frog.

Finally, the idea of opposites invents love turning to hate. For me, this doesn't ring true. Surely, the opposite of love in any of its forms must be this: indifference.

  • Two famous paintings illustrate the point.  My choices are theportrait of 'Jan Arnolfini and His Wife' by John Van Eyck and Grant Wood's 'American Gothic.'

No doubt, other interpretations can be made of both works and the artists may have intended something else. To me, these finely drawn expressions of remoteness between two people are the furthest thing from depictions of love in any form.©Dorothy Gauvin

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