Wonderful Paintings Inspired by Famous Literary Couples
min Read17 October 2022
Art and literature have been a thing for centuries and they’re still at it. We have plucked a few worthy fruits of their union to show you how happily they go hand-in-hand, especially when it comes to people, relationships, love, and drama! Keep reading to find out how wonderful paintings have been inspired by famous literary couples.
Adam & Eve — The Original Couple
Our opening pair hardly needs an introduction. Nevertheless, let it be known that you can find the story of Eve and Adam in the Bible. Whether you consider it the divine at work, an artistic cooperation between God and men, or just a bundle of human-made tales, the weight and importance it carries is undeniable! So much so that, throughout art history, the Bible drew artists to represent its hundreds of characters and their stories in all fashions and styles, via all sorts of media.
According to the scriptures, God created Adam. He looked lonely there, so God took one of Adam’s ribs and created Eve. They were both blissfully unaware of being naked, happily living in the gardens of Eden. Until…
The serpent […] said to the woman: “Is it true that God said: ye must not eat from any tree in the garden? […] God knows that when ye ate it, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.
Genesis 3:3, Old Testament, The Bible. Bible MIT.
A snake tempts Eve to pick an apple from the Tree of Knowledge, a forbidden fruit. She and Adam don’t have much to talk about, maybe. What an intriguing new option! Will she grab the apple, in the end? (cliffhanger).
Yes. Yes, she does. Once she plucks it and eats it, she then offers it to Adam. He follows her down the white rabbit hole (to borrow from a different book) and they fall into disgrace because God told them not to eat it. Just before being banished, they register the fact that they are naked. Their eyes open to the misery of their condition which is a result of their disobedience. So they are sent off, out of the Garden of Eden and into the world. They sob as they go, with their bits out.
To show you the original couple, committing the original sin, we picked a painting that represents a poised moment before all hell breaks loose. It was done by Lucas Cranach the Elder in 1526. He was so fond of the scene that he reproduced it several times. In most of them Adam looks rather dubious, in the one we are displaying here he even scratches his head. We can almost hear him go: “errr”. The painter did not compliment him with a very bright facial expression, whereas Eve glows with excitement.
As any Renaissance artist would do, this German artist showcased his skills and knowledge through an admirable anatomical precision and a multitude of natural details. We must excuse the forcing of the perspective on Eve’s right arm and hand. Through the inclusion of so many plants and animals he created a Garden of Eden worthy of its name! For example, the detailed feature of the drinking roebuck in the lower-right corner of the painting, reflecting in the puddle of water, is a statement in itself.
Guinevere & Lancelot — Medieval Influencers
At the time of the War of the Two Roses (1455–1485), Sir Thomas Malory wrote, while imprisoned for robbery and violence, the story of King Arthur and his knights. It recalled the reign of a mythical sovereign and the ideals of chivalry. I see a certain irony in his situation and his choice of content, however, one shouldn’t judge the book by its cover!
The work is composed of eight novels, based on stories that the writer fished out from the most famous cycle of pre-existing medieval legends. Malory’s collection became very popular and did so very quickly.
Guinevere and Lancelot, together with King Arthur, Merlin, and Mordred are some of the most famous characters that Malory used in his novels. Guinevere is the Queen, Arthur is her King, and Lancelot is their most trustworthy ally and friend. He is the best knight in town. Already, it shows all the signs of a big, fat, amorous triangle, doesn’t it? It will not surprise you to learn that Lancelot, after trying his absolute best not to, becomes the Queen’s avid lover.
They mingle so often that basically everybody in the book knows what is going on, but Arthur. When he finally finds out, this dreadful discovery marks the beginning of the end. Despite the infamy, the couple is drawn together at all times.
Madame I pray you kysse me, and never no more‘.
‘Nay‘, sayd the quene, ‘that shal I never do, but absteyne you from suche werkes.’ And they departed.
Thomas Malory, Morte d’Arthur, Book XXI. George Mason University.
This beautiful piece inspired by the words in Arthurian mythology is a watercolor by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who was involved in art as much as in poetry. The artist founded the Pre-Raphaelite movement with William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais in 1848. He also invented a specific painting technique with watercolors, the very same one Rossetti used for his Arthur’s Tomb work. He mixed thick pigments with gum to obtain visual effects that would resemble those of medieval illuminations. His taste for medieval revivalism is coherent with his choice to represent this reunion between the Queen and her favorite knight.
Rossetti rendered the textures and the materials exquisitely. I particularly love the spots of light and shade cast by the fruit tree on the white veil covering Guinevere’s shoulder. The hungry desire for one last kiss painted on the knight’s face, the reaching out of his whole body, even over poor Arthur’s face, is captured with beautiful mastery. As well as the prude rejection of the Queen.
This scene isn’t exactly by the book – the location of Arthur’s tomb is an artistic license Rossetti took to transmit a concept that was dear to him: the everlasting conflict and relation between sacred and profane love. Also, it certainly adds a good amount of drama. However, Lancelot does go to find Guinevere after she takes the vows and becomes a nun…
Now, why would I call these two characters “influencers”? Guinevere and Lancelot inspired Malory in the 1400s as much as Rossetti in the 19th century. Their story kept a fervid, transversal artistic production alive, linking pages and paintings. They are timeless. Their forbidden love influenced, among many others, a supreme medieval poet who mentioned them in his masterpiece. Thus he added a further thread, intertwining literature and art. Keep reading to find out more!
Francesca & Paolo — From Hell with Love
This third couple might not be as famous as the first two. On the other hand, they certainly were at the time of Dante Alighieri – the Italian poet who wrote the Divine Comedy. Critics believe that he wrote its 100 cantos (composed by a variable number of lines – between 115 and 160 – arranged in triplets) between the 1304 and 1321. A quick multiplication gives a rounded down total of 11,500 lines of formidable poetry. He dedicated over 15 years to the composition of what became one of the most acclaimed medieval literary achievements, worldwide.
Dante’s outstanding work sees him traveling far and wide in the otherworld, all the way down to the bottom of hell, then up again through Purgatory, to finally be granted ascent to heaven. When he gets lost in a selva oscura, a dark forest, his journey begins. He meets all sorts of creatures in hell, including Lucifer himself.
Dante narrates about Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta in the fifth canto of the Inferno song. A strong wind sweeps them and they are out of control, unable to stop in the circle of the lustful, yet they still cling to one another. In life, Francesca was married to Paolo’s brother and their adulterous love brought upon them a violent end by the betrayed husband’s hand, and eternal damnation by Dante’s hand, as he is the one who places them there.
[Francesca]: One day, to pass the time away, we read of Lancelot – how love had overcome him. We were alone, and we suspected nothing.
And time and time again that reading led our eyes to meet, and made our faces pale, and yet one point alone defeated us.
When we had read how the desired smile was kissed by one who was so true a lover, this one, who never shall be parted from me, while all his body trembled, kissed my mouth.
A Gallehault indeed, that book and he who wrote it, too; that day we read no more.
Dante Alighieri, Divine Comedy, Inferno V, 127-138. Digital Dante/University of Columbia.
Arguably, to favor the poet’s character and not pitch him to you as a judgy tyrant, I must add that he listens to Francesca’s tale with a lump in his throat. To the total detriment of his virility, at the end of the canto he tells everybody that he cannot stand the pain he feels for them any longer. Hence by pity he faints, face down on the floor.
Above you can see the painting that Anselm Feuerbach dedicated to this famous literary couple, five hundred years after Dante wrote of them. As the leading Classicist painter of Germany in the 19th century, Feuerbach made the organic choice of depicting them in a peaceful garden. They show a statuesque, physical presence and posing gestures that echo ancient Greek Art. The use of chiaroscuro (the juxtaposition of patches of light and dark) is another indicator of the artist’s devotion to the classics. The couple sit next to each other, surrounded by greenery. The sky is partially cloudy, most certainly birds are singing. What a very fine day! What could go wrong?
So, in Feuerbach’s scene, the turmoil that this close proximity must be causing is not to be seen. The yet-to-be lovers are reading, or will soon be reading, of Lancelot and Guinevere and of how they fell into temptation and could not help their overwhelming passion. As Francesca says to Dante, when they meet in hell: “that day we read no more.” Was that in Feuerbach’s painting, that day? If we look at it this way, we can imagine that very little would need to happen for this chaste image to turn into something else. She could turn her head towards her left, he could lift his right hand and touch her shoulder. There is a tension full of possibilities and meanings.
Desdemona & Othello — As If We Could Leave Shakespeare Out
On this tour we are showing you around the intense relationship between literature and art, we wouldn’t dream of excluding William Shakespeare and how he stoked the fire during the Elizabethan Era. It would be like guiding you through London and not showing you Big Ben. We could have gone for Verona’s uber-famous sweethearts – aka Romeo & Juliet – but instead, we opted for a less obvious alternative. Besides, Othello is just as much of a tragedy as Romeo & Juliet! So, here comes drama number four.
Shakespeare wrote the play Othello, The Moor Of Venice around 1603. It is a story that showcases many enduring themes such as jealousy, betrayal, revenge, love, and racism. Desdemona loves Othello and he reciprocates, so they marry, but in secret. He is both powerful and well established. Despite that, in Venice in the late 16th century he is still a stranger. The fact that he is identified as “the Moor” tells us that his provenance is known, it also diversifies him from his Venetian peers.
Desdemona’s father finds out about the marriage. No rest for the wicked. To say that he is not happy would be an understatement. On top of that, a power struggle between Othello and his bishop creeps into the story. Evil machinations of said bishop lead “the Moor” to believe that Desdemona has been unfaithful. Blinded by his jealousy in the end, he kills her. Of course he then finds out that none of it was true. Would you like to guess how he repents? He kills himself, flopping right on top of his passed wife. Typical.
I kissed thee ere I killed thee: no way but this,
Killing myself, to die upon a kiss
William Shakespeare, Othello, The Moor of Venice, Act 5, Scene 2. Othello/Spark Notes.
These two ill-starred lovers, so grossly misled by deception and plotting, inspired many artists. Their charm also captured the imagination of Sir William Blake. He was an English poet, painter and print-maker who is now considered one of the major precursors of the Romantic movement. He lived and created via different media throughout the second half of the 18th century. Blake was in his early twenties when he drew and painted the image above. As much as Feuerbach’s Paolo & Francesca, his Othello and Desdemona reflect the taste for well proportioned figures that characterized the ancient Greeks. Its simplicity in composition, style, and color convey a particular interest for the theme, rather than for anything else.
Admittedly, Blake’s watercolor and pen work looks more like a study of the subject. There are much grander depictions of this inspiring literary couple with bigger dimensions, much more drama, and greater scenic structure. However, given the transversal, admirable skills of Sir. William Blake with both pen and brush, this example fits like a glove!
Angelica & Medoro — It Is Not All Doom and Gloom
Alas, we are now approaching the last beautiful piece of art inspired by literary couples. After so much suffering and drama, you will be relieved to know that the next pair does much better than the other four, by miles.
Angelica & Medoro are only two of the many characters described in Orlando Furioso (Furious Orlando), a Renaissance chivalric poem written by the Italian poet Ludovico Ariosto in 1516. The number one paladin in the story though, is Orlando. His name is even in the title! In this courtly world, a group of knights and noblemen are after Angelica’s virtue. Orlando is first in line. Clearly, she is a driving force behind the whole narrative. The love for her and the war between Christians and Saracens are the sources of power that keep everybody moving, chasing, wandering.
It is not until the Song XIX that our two last lovers finally meet. Medoro, a Saracen, is badly wounded in a fight and Angelica crosses his path. She stops to assist him. Here Ariosto uses the image of a Cupid’s dart hitting her heart. At the sight of him, she is wounded by Love and while she helps him out, her heart bleeds. She feels feverish and shaky.
Burning she feels, and the fire mounts;
and the more she cares for his, the less she minds her disease:
she cares not about herself, and minds nothing else
than to heal and restore who wounds and torment her
Ludovico Ariosto, Orlando Furioso (Furious Orlando), Song XIX. Sacred Texts.
Realistically, this story doesn’t end well for the main character. Poor paladin Orlando, the unrequited lover, in Song XXIII goes completely mad when he finds out that his Angelica has run away with a simple infantryman (you guessed, it’s Medoro), a Saracen, no less! The adjective in the title ‘furioso’ refers to this exact moment, to this blind rage and heart breaking disenchantment.
Our last wonderful painting inspired by famous literary couples is going to be Medoro and Angelica, by Sebastiano Ricci. The painter belongs to the Venetian late Baroque and was a contemporary of Giovanni Battista Tiepolo. Certainly, beauty and luminosity were high priorities on his list. He produced a charming set with chubby cherubs, a tanned, vigorous Medoro, and a diaphanous, buttery Angelica. They all appear very grand, sensuous, and dynamic – one hundred percent Baroque. Critics have matched the two lovers to the two different trees in the scene. Although they are clearly different plants, Ricci painted them as if they are joined at the roots. One tree is dark and strong (an oak) and the other is thinner and lighter in color (a birch).
Medoro writes their names on the bark. He does it several times actually. So does she, in the book. They appear to be resting in the wilderness. Later they will journey to Angelica’s Country of origin where we can suppose they will lead a happy life. Orlando will discover the amorous acronyms and the finding them will cost him his sanity. But what can an author do? One cannot please everyone.
Honorable Mentions & FanArt — A Digital Plot Twist
Finally, to wrap up this fine list of famous literary couples inspiring art, there are few honorable mentions. Nowadays, there is an interesting twist in the production of visual content. People around the world create an incredible amount of images via all media every day and share them on the internet. They are posted for everyone to enjoy, inspired by some couples of modern and contemporary literature that might not have made the historical masters’ cut. These include Elizabeth Bennet & Mr. Darcy from Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice (1813), or Daisy & Gatsby from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925), or even Ron Weasley & Hermione Granger from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter saga (1998). You can find them on Tumblr, Pinterest and many other platforms!
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