Love Story

An Ode to the Kiss in Art

Rachel Witte 8 February 2021 min Read

It’s that time of year again where cute candy hearts and boxes of chocolate line the supermarket shelves. Children hand out cute valentine cards to their friends; we make plans with loved ones or friends for a fun or romantic evening. What better way to celebrate this ‘holiday’ than to look at love and kissing in art.

Why is the theme so prominent throughout art history?

When you think of Valentine’s Day, does it bring to mind a scene of couples kissing? Perhaps it brings to the surface memories of love and adoration. The truest nature of a kiss is considerably vast in its meaning, and the works of art that portray kissing are even more so.

The theme of the kiss in art spans history, cultures, and various mediums— including film and photography—ranging from well-known artists to the relatively unknown. But, why is the nature of a kiss so enticing to artists? Is it because a kiss makes us feel something, anything? Because it stirs up emotion, both good and bad, in the depths of our soul? An image of a kiss opens a vast world of questions: Are the figures secret lovers? Is it a friendly peck? Is it a kiss of death? A kiss of life? With all of these questions, one thing holds true: the kiss is one of the most prominent themes in art

Art of a kiss

However, just because it is a prominent theme or symbol, it does not necessarily mean that the kiss is well regarded in all cultures. Even though mentioned in ancient texts, its popularity has ebbed and flowed with time. Otherwise, there are some cultures that believe the kiss sends a dirty message; likewise, some cultures leave the kissing between animals. In some Eastern cultures, there are laws surrounding kissing. In this case, it is often believed the kiss is meant for a private situation and should not happen in public.

Given that there are many culturally different opinions on kissing, it may be no surprise that the intimacy of a kiss is something represented often in Western culture. We see it in modern films such as Spider-Man, The Notebook, Princess Bride, Titanic…the list goes on and on.

Still from Spider-Man, dir. Sam Raimi, 2002.
Still from Spider-Man, dir. Sam Raimi, 2002. IMDB.

The same can be said for art works. What follows is just a glimpse of the plethora of paintings in art history that depict a kiss.

Hayez, The Kiss

Francesco Hayez, The Kiss, 1859, Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan, Italy.
Francesco Hayez, The Kiss, 1859, Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan, Italy.

Hayez’ painting is one of love and passion, both for another and for country. This seemingly simple gesture of the two figures embracing is actually filled with more symbolism than not. The colors of the clothing, the simplicity of the work; it is one of the most replicated paintings on the theme.

Klimt, The Kiss

 Gustav Klimt, The Kiss, 1908, Belvedere, Vienna, Austria.
Gustav Klimt, The Kiss, 1908, Belvedere, Vienna, Austria.

Perhaps one of the most well known examples of kissing in art, Klimt‘s passionate painting is beautiful in its Art Nouveau style. We see here a couple kneeling in a patch of flowers; the boundaries of their respective bodies are not completely defined, almost as if they are one.

Toulouse-Lautrec, In Bed The Kiss

Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, In Bed The Kiss, 1892-93, private collection.
Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, In Bed:The Kiss, 1892-93, private collection. WikiArt.

This is just one of the many paintings of Bohemian Paris in the late 19th century. It is one of several in a series of paintings where Toulouse-Lautrec focused on the more intimate details of the lives of these women and others around them.

Gérôme, Pygmalion and Galatea

Jean-Léon Gérôme, Pygmalion and Galatea,
Jean-Léon Gérôme, Pygmalion and Galatea, ca. 1890, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, USA.

At first glance, two figures embrace, kissing each other passionately. But upon further inspection, we see that the female figure is a statue come to life. The pair of Pygmalion and Galatea are centered in the middle of an artist’s studio. Gérôme focused on the story from Ovid’s Metamorphoses for varying renditions of this piece. Both in sculpture and paint.

Magritte, The Lovers

René Magritte, The Lovers, 1928, Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY, USA.
René Magritte, The Lovers, 1928, Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY, USA.

What attracts viewers to this painting may be Magritte’s typical covering of the face. Why has he chosen to cover the faces of these figures? They appear in mid-kiss, but their lips aren’t actually touching due to the fabric. Perhaps a frustrating kiss. Again, this is just one of many paintings where the artist chose to focus on kissing. Not only is it mysterious, but unlike Klimt’s The Kiss, Magritte places his pair in a concrete setting, that of a room.

“You must remember this: A kiss is still a kiss.”

Casablanca, dir. Micheal Curtiz, 1942.

A kiss can have various meanings depending on the location. This painting depicts a young girl kissing another on the cheek. It is sweet and endearing; far from the sensuality of the previous paintings.

Bouguereau, A Little Coaxing

William Bouguereau, A Little Coaxing, 1890, private collection. Wikimedia Commons
William Bouguereau, A Little Coaxing, 1890, private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Giotto‘s Kiss of Judas (1304-06) is an example of when a kiss means something more than love or respect: Betrayal. The apostle kissed the man known as the Messiah in the New Testament of the Christian bible in order for the guards to identify him.

Giotto, Kiss of Judas

Giotto, Kiss of Judas, 1304-06, Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, Italy. Museo Civico of Padua.

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