Cupid to Kahlo: 5 Love Stories Behind Iconic Works of Art | Blog | Domestika (2024)

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Covering the dreamy to the dark, travel through art history to discover the love stories behind world-famous artworks

From the streets we walk to the books we read or the films we watch, love really is all around us—and art is no exception. Some of the most famous lovers of all time have been immortalized forever with brush and canvas, or by the skillful hands of a sculptor. But behind these iconic pieces lie fascinating and sometimes much darker stories…

1. Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss (1787-1793), by Antonio Canova

In Lucius Apuleius Madaurensis’ Metamorphoses, Princess Psyche is sent on a trial to the underworld to retrieve a jar from Queen Proserpina. She's warned, however, that on no account must she open the jar and look at what's inside. As with all great stories, curiosity gets the better of her, and on her way back she stops to open it; but the jar’s contents send her into a deep and deathlike sleep.

Canova’s sculpture depicts the moment she is found by her lover Cupid, who flies down to her side and awakens her. This story has an even happier ending; Psyche is eventually made immortal so that she and Cupid can live together forever with the Gods on Mount Olympus.

2. The Kiss (1888-1898), Auguste Rodin

He leans towards her, one hand resting on her hip, she reaches up, her arm clasped tightly around his neck, their lips locked for eternity. Auguste Rodin’s masterpiece perfectly captures two young lovers in the throes of passion. But behind their amorous embrace lies a much darker tale.

The inspiration for the work comes from Alighieri Dante’s fourteenth-century poem Divine Comedy. The first part of this epic work, Inferno, describes Dante’s journey through the Nine Circles of Hell, where he meets lovers Paolo and Francesca who have been doomed for eternity for committing adultery.

The pair fell in love while reading each other tales of Lancelot and Guinevere, but were discovered by Francesca’s husband—who is also Paolo’s brother. In a fit of rage, he stabs and kills them both, and they're condemned to the second circle of hell. Rodin’s sculpture depicts the moment of their first, illicit kiss. If you look closely at the sculpture, you can just about see the book in Paolo’s hand.

3. In Bed: The Kiss (1892), by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

Perhaps best known for his paintings depicting racier scenes from Parisian nightlife during the Belle Epoque, this work by Post-Impressionist painter Toulouse-Lautrec shows another side. Part of a series of paintings commissioned to decorate the salon of a Parisian brothel, In Bed: The Kiss captures an intimate moment between two women sharing a kiss while in a deep embrace.

Brothels often lacked space for the women who worked there to have individual beds, so it was not uncommon to find people sharing, however, the subject of lesbianism would still have been controversial at the time. Free from that prejudice, Toulouse-Lautrec's series reveals the tender, passionate moments shared behind the scenes by these female sex workers.

4. The End of the Song (Tristan and Isolde) (1902), Edmund Blair Leighton

The tragic tale of Tristan and Isolde has been told many times, in many ways, from the big screen to opera.

According to the famous medieval love romance, King Mark of Cornwall sends his nephew, Tristan, to Ireland to ask for the princess Isolde’s hand in marriage. But when Tristan and Isolde unwittingly drink an enchanted potion, the two fall hopelessly in love.

It is a love that cannot be, however, and while several different variations of the story exist, the popular version sees Tristan fatally wounded by a poisoned weapon. Upon finding him dead, Isolde also dies from a broken heart. Tristan was said to be a great musician, as depicted in Edmund Blair Leighton's painting where he plays the harp to Isolde.

5. Frida and Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, 1931

In this wedding portrait, Frida Kahlo and her husband are seen holding hands while in the background, a dove flies with a ribbon in its mouth that reads “Here you see us, me Frida Kahlo, with my dearest husband Diego Rivera.” Yet their relationship was far from idyllic.

They married in 1929, divorced in 1940, and then remarried a year later, with both of them engaging in numerous extra-marital affairs (one of which was between Rivera and Kahlo’s sister). In fact, Rivera was already having an affair with tennis star Helen Wills when Kahlo was painting this portrait.

While Kahlo adored her husband, she was very aware of his infidelities, saying “Being the wife of Diego is the most marvelous thing in the world ... I let him play matrimony with other women. Diego is not anybody's husband and never will be, but he is a great comrade."

What are your favorite love stories from art history? Let us know in the comments below.

For more stories like this from across the creative world, keep an eye on the Interesting Facts section on our blog.

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  • Cupid to Kahlo: 5 Love Stories Behind Iconic Works of Art | Blog | Domestika (8)
  • Cupid to Kahlo: 5 Love Stories Behind Iconic Works of Art | Blog | Domestika (9)
Cupid to Kahlo: 5 Love Stories Behind Iconic Works of Art | Blog | Domestika (2024)
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