Love in the Galleries

Ah, love – it’s been the subject of sculptures, songs, and sonnets, inspired poets and painters alike, driven the plots of everything from Homeric hymns to YouTube videos, and now it’s even a tour of the museum! This Valentine’s Day, take your sweetheart through the galleries to these romantic works of art. 

For your first stops, visit the Greek and Roman galleries on the first floor of the 1916 Building. In Gallery 102, find the Atalanta Lekythos, a white-ground vase which includes depictions of erotes, Greek gods of love and sex depicted as nude, winged young men. They’re pretty easy to identify because of the wings, but just to make sure the artist even labeled them with tiny letters, EPOS.


In the Roman galleries (Gallery 103), look for a sculpture depicting head of Eros, the Greek god of love and one of the erotes. (You might know Eros better by his Roman name, Cupid.) This head is a Roman copy of a Greek sculpture by Lysippus, who worked in the court of Alexander the Great. Like the baby-version of Cupid we’re familiar with today, the full version of this sculpture would have held a bow in his hand. 


Your second stop takes you to the other side of the 1916 Building to a charming painting of two young lovers dressed in coordinating outfits of red and white with green and brown accents. Wearing circlets on their heads and rings on their fingers, this pair is probably newly married and dressed in their finest to celebrate the union. There’s a lot of symbols of love in this painting, from the red in their clothing to the blue chicory flower in the man’s hand. Take some time to explore the details – look at the tiny flowers painted in the trees, and the delicate pearls and gems in the woman’s necklace. 


Next, go upstairs to Gallery 201 to see two more depictions of Cupid. In Charles Meynier’s series of paintings depicting five of the nine Muses, Cupid is shown alongside Erato, the muse of lyrical poetry. In ancient Greek literary tradition, lyrical poetry was a specific type of poetry accompanied by music played on the lyre (and yes, there is a lyre laying in the bushes behind Cupid, ready to be played when the poem is complete). Often, lyric poems took love as their subject, hence Cupid’s interest in Erato’s work. 

Looking somewhat like the erotes on the Atalanta Lekythos, Cupid is shown as a winged youth. He has a quiver of arrows strapped to his back, though his bow is absent. Make sure to take a look at what Erato’s writing with – it’s another one of Cupid’s arrows. 


In the same gallery to the left of the Muses is Cupid and Psyche, a monumental painting by Jacques-Louis David. When Venus’ worshippers started admiring the beautiful Psyche instead of Venus herself, the goddess sent Cupid to carry out a mission of revenge: make Psyche fall in love with something completely hideous and awful. But Cupid scratched himself on his own arrow, and instead it is he who falls in love with Psyche. When Psyche’s family, fearing divine anger, leaves her out on a mountaintop to meet her fate, Cupid sends the wind, Zephyr, to take her to a beautiful house instead. 

There she lives in luxury and comes to love her rescuer, though she doesn’t know his true identity. Cupid only appears when it’s fully dark and slips away each morning before the sun comes up. David’s painting depicts this moment, when Cupid has to hurry away as the sun peeks over the horizon. 

cupid psyche

Continue on to the west wing, where in Gallery 244 you’ll find two different sculptures of lovers, or mithuna. Both sculptures are from India, are about a millennia old, and were part of the exterior decoration of two different temples. Images of sexual union appeared often in Hindu and Jain art, and were intended to celebrate the beauty and abundance of the world. Spend some time with these: take a few moments to enjoy how skillfully the artists have depicted the tender gestures and interactions between the lovers in each pair. 


mithuna 2

Next, head over to the east wing to see two expressions of love inspired by tragedy: Marsden Hartley’s Military, in Gallery 226A, and Kay Sage’s A Bird in the Room, right next door in 226B. 

At first glance, Hartley’s painting combining flags, banners, targets, and other martial imagery looks more like a call to battle than an expression of love. But the symbols are actually meant to be a reference to Karl von Freyburg, a Prussian soldier killed in the First World War, with whom Hartley was in love. After von Freyburg’s death in 1914, Hartley painted a series of works with imagery referencing not only the military but also his lover’s initials, K v. F, and the numbers 2 and 4 for 24, von Freyburg’s age.  


A Bird in the Room is a dark, desolate-feeling painting – and if you’re confused because you can’t find the bird, you’re not alone: there isn’t one. This painting is an expression of Sage’s grief for Yves Tanguy, her husband and fellow Surrealist painter who died suddenly of a stroke in 1955. (An example of Tanguy’s work is on view in Gallery 225.) Inseparable throughout their fifteen-year marriage, each had a strong influence on the other’s work. The title refers to a folk legend, in which a bird flying into the house is a premonition of death, an event which Sage supposedly experienced before her husband’s untimely death.

A Bird in the Room

Though tragic, the depth of grief expressed by both paintings also speaks to the great love felt by each artist. 

To end on a happier note, though, make one last stop back in the 1916 Building, in Pure Color: Pastels from the Cleveland Museum of Art. There you’ll find a pastel drawing of Aline Charigot by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, holding the couple’s son Pierre. Charigot appears as a model in many of Renoir’s works, both before and after their marriage in 1890. Pastel enjoyed a resurgence in the late 1800s; Renoir and his contemporaries took full advantage of the wide range of colors available to them, resulting in bright, expressive portraits like this one. 


We hope you and your sweetheart enjoy the galleries this February, and wish you a very happy Valentine’s Day from the Cleveland Museum of Art! 


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