Love is a many splendored thing. So it’s quite rightfully a dominant and recurring theme throughout art history. There’s nothing more romantic than turning this deep, wholehearted feeling into art. We see love is depicted in many forms across many schools and styles of art. Oftentimes it’s intimate moments shared between lovers or an artist’s lover preserved eternally with loving brushstrokes.
Let’s take a journey through art history, from classic famous paintings of couples in love to surrealist interpretations of the ever-elusive yet universal feeling. Here’s a list of love paintings for beginners and veteran art enthusiasts alike!
1. Birth of Venus, Sandro Botticelli (1486)
Let’s start out this list with a personification of love. It’s unlikely that you haven’t yet come across this icon of Italian Renaissance art. It’s the most popular depiction of Venus, the goddess of love herself. Botticelli’s masterpiece follows Homer’s account, where Venus is born from seafoam and pushed ashore by wind god Zephyr whom we see embracing a nymph. It’s a symbolic art piece that celebrates femininity as well as the rebirth of love and hope–in contrast to darker themes that characterized the Middle Ages.
2. The Honeysuckle Bower, Peter Paul Rubens
Artists have made muses of lovers since time immemorial. Here we see a self-portrait of Peter Paul Rubens and his first wife, Isabella Brant. The couple sits hand in hand underneath the bower of a honeysuckle tree. Looking at it makes you feel soft, peaceful, and romantic. This double portrait, like Rubens’ other pieces, contains a lot of symbolism. Honeysuckles were seen as symbols of love, faithfulness, and blooming feelings.
3. The Jewish Bride, Rembrandt (1665-69)
Rembrandt’s posthumously titled portrait The Jewish Bride got its name when a Dutch collector identified the subject as a Jewish father gifting his daughter a necklace on her wedding day. The most accepted speculation is that it’s Isaac and Rebecca from the Old Testament of the Bible, given religious motifs in Rembrandt’s work. Still, it’s considered one of the greatest works of his final period for its intricate detail and the emotional depth of the pair’s expressions. Whichever interpretation you agree with, you can’t deny the loving relationship between the two. Their hands are gentle and protective. Their trusting eyes say so much without meeting each other.
4. The Swing, Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1767)
This painting is an icon of the French Rococo period. It’s fun, frivolous, and very French. A courtier actually commissioned Fragonard to paint him and his mistress. You can’t help but feel contagious happiness from the noblewoman in a large, billowing gown, her slipper flying through the air as she’s pushed by an obscured man in the background. Instead of gazing up at the sky, she looks coquettishly down at her lover on the lower left. Back in 18th century France, gardens were romantic and discreet getaway spots.
5. Lovers under an umbrella in the snow, Suzuki Harunobu (1769)
Done in the ukiyo-e style, this painting on wood emulates the Japanese wabi philosophy. It’s simple, quiet, and candid. This is a moment shared between two lovers completely engrossed in one another. It’s a brilliant use of white space–there’s no need to detail snowfall but for its gathering atop branches and the shared umbrella. Historians interpret this in two ways–you can choose between a happy moment or a sad ending of two people walking down a lover’s suicide path. I prefer the former.
6. Il bacio, Francesco Hayez (1859)
In the 1800s, this passionate kiss between lovers was still seen as explicit and even controversial. Art historians consider this to be Hayez’s best work and interpret the couple as an Italian soldier going to war and kissing his love goodbye. It’s still one of the most intense representations of a kiss in Western art history. But what makes Hayez’s Il Bacio so groundbreaking is its combination of romance and patriotism. It’s a symbol of Italian romanticism and the dual meaning of love–love for one’s country and love for another.
7. Le Sommeil (The Sleepers), Gustave Courbet (1866)
This painting made a serious impact on the 19th-century art world and the artists of that time. For one, it’s an erotic picture of a lesbian couple. The painting is also known as Les Deux Amies or The Two Friends, even though they’re something more. It’s a taboo-breaker for sure. After this came out, more artists began exploring the theme of lesbian love. Courbet was also known for leading the Realism movement of the 19th century–painting bodies without hiding imperfection versus romanticizing a scene on canvas.
8. Springtime, Pierre Auguste Cot (1873)
Don’t you love the fluttering feeling of flirtatious love? In Pierre Auguste Cot’s most famous work, you can feel the sparks flying between this embracing couple. It’s like we’re peering into a private moment in the secrecy of a verdant garden. Dressed in the classical style, it’s reminiscent of the work of Cot’s mentors, Alexandre Cabanel and William Adolphe Bouguereau.
9. Dance in the Country, Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1883)
We can’t leave out the Impressionists when it comes to love and art–both are full of light and color after all. In Renoir’s ballroom scene, you can almost hear and feel the music sweeping the couple across the dance floor. They’re so engrossed in the dance that his hat has fallen to the floor, and the woman is shown smiling at the viewer. The painting shows Paul Lhôte and Aline Charigot–the latter married Renoir in 1890.
10. Pygmalion and Galatea, Jean-Léon Gérôme (1890)
Art comes to life in the classic Greek myth of Pygmalion and Galatea. A sculptor falls madly in love with his statue and, touched by his story, the goddess Aphrodite brings her alive. Jean-Léon Gérôme painted various versions of this scene–you can see them referenced in each other’s backgrounds. But the most famous depiction is the one where Galatea is seen from behind, still emerging from her stone state and leaning into Pygmalion’s kiss.
11. L'Amour et Psyche, enfants (Cupid and Psyche as Children), William Adolphe Bouguereau (1890)
Nothing beats the classics when it comes to a good love story. At least for me. And here we continue to revisit Greco-Roman mythology. A maestro of neoclassicism, Bouguereau painted three versions of Eros and Psyche: two in which they’re adults and one where they’re children. When you think Cupid, you automatically envision a cheeky winged cherub. This is him with his soulmate Psyche, both a reflection of the innocence of love.
12. In Bed, The Kiss, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1892)
Many famous love paintings depict lovers kissing or embracing. This post-impressionist painting by Lautrec should be familiar. We see a couple caught up in an intimate and passionate kiss, inseparable but for a moment. There’s a sense of longing you get as a viewer, made even more poignant when you consider Lautrec’s life-long struggle with physical disability and finding love.
13. The Kiss, Edvard Munch (1897)
Another variation of lovers kissing, albeit a little darker given Munch’s artistic obsession with mortality. The couple’s faces merge into each other, their bodies becoming almost an abstract form. Munch shows that, in love, they are one–but some interpret this as a loss of individuality or even a depiction of life and death.
14. The Kiss, Gustav Klimt (1908)
We complete our trio of famous kiss paintings with Klimt’s iconic gilded masterpiece. You have to see this one for yourself in person someday. The painting itself is huge. These two lovers blend into one life-size figure beneath golden blankets, towering over you at 6 feet tall and wide. This piece is considered the pinnacle of Klimt’s golden period. It’s become the subject of many studies, cinematography references, and even fan art.
15. Birthday, Marc Chagall (1915)
Throughout art history, we’ve seen painters immortalizing their loves on canvas. We see a dreamy moment of love turned surreal in Marc Chagall’s work. Love can make us do strange things. Like turning into a floating corporeal form at the lightest kiss.
16. The Lovers, René Magritte (1928)
Love can be surreal. And we see that in Magritte’s famous painting of a kiss, literally shrouded in mystery. The cloth is a barrier between the lovers themselves, and also between subject and viewer. It plays against the previously voyeuristic portrayal of lovers we’ve seen throughout art history. But perhaps it simply doesn’t mean anything. In Magritte’s own words, “Mystery means nothing either, it is unknowable.”
17. Romance, Thomas Hart Benton (1931-32)
Photo from the Blanton Museum of Art Collections
We now move from Europe to southern and midwestern America. Thomas Hart Benton was a pioneer of the Regionalist movement, often romanticizing a post-World War I America and highlighting themes of individualism, hard work, and social realism in his paintings. Here we see an idyllic version of love in the south. Two lovers walking hand in hand, perhaps home in the night.
18. Frida and Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo (1931)
If there’s one art history power couple you need to know about, it’s Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. Though their relationship was not all smooth-sailing. Kahlo painted this double portrait two years into their marriage. This painting preserves a time of joy in what would become a tumultuous love affair. The couple married in 1929, divorced in 1939, and remarried a year later. You can see how life imitates art. Rivera is depicted as the larger artist and–a foreshadowing of what was to come next.
19. Le Rêve (The Dream), Pablo Picasso (1932)
Still on the topic of lovers immortalized through art, we move to one of Picasso’s happier works. Le Rêve is a portrait of Picasso’s mistress Marie Therese Walter, eroticized in his signature cubic style. It’s said to have been painted all in one afternoon in Paris. It’s still up to your interpretation whether the dream in the painting is the scene itself or one that the subject is having.
20. We rose up slowly, Roy Lichtenstein (1964)
You’ll recognize Roy Lichtenstein’s style anywhere. The founder of the American pop art movement turned comics into paintings, putting pop culture at the forefront of the ‘90s New York art scene. You can interpret this piece as a comedic, archetypal vision of the cliched American couple. There’s a blond man and Barbie-like woman breathlessly in love–as noted in the accompanying comic text on the left.
21. Slow Dance, Kerry James Marshall (1992)
Photo © from the Smart Museum of Art, University of Chicago
No other artist of color is as influential–or even controversial–as Kerry James Marshall. His works confront the reality of African American marginalization and the emerging Black identity. A frequent motif in his works is the depiction of the culture and daily life of the black community. Here, we see a tender moment and ode to black love. A romantic date night in, and a couple lost to song, dance, and love.
22. Valentine's, Banksy (2020)
Photo © Banksy's Instagram
If you’re feeling love, why not take it to the streets? Much like this graffiti piece by the elusive political street artist Banksy. The mural appeared on a wall in Bristol early on 13 February 2020. It depicts a little girl shooting red fireworks made of painted flowers into the sky–his take, perhaps on the violence and innocence of love. There was much debate on social media whether the street art was a legitimate Banksy work. On midnight of Valentine’s Day, Banksy confirmed the mural as his in an Instagram post. With street art, though, nothing lasts forever. The mural was vandalized the next day.
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Can’t help falling in love with these artworks? We challenge you to recreate your favorites in your own style. Aspiring and established artists alike hone their craft by making studies of their favorite art pieces. Bust out that journal or your most-loved paint and get in a creative flow state!
We hope this list gave you some inspiration for your next artwork. What’s your favorite love painting of all time? Did we include it in this list? Let us know in the comments below!