Love is in the air this month - and also on the canvas.
As part of our London paintings series, we’re marking this month with the most romantic paintings in London.
And if you think Valentine’s Day is an over-commercialised, corporate sham, take comfort from these artists: many of them were painting hundreds of years before a Clintons Cards ever existed.
Diana Armfield RA, Still-life Rose and Wild Flowers (1989-1990)
Because who doesn’t love a nice bunch of flowers on Valentine’s day? Armfield’s painting, housed in the Royal Academy collection, is a reminder of the joy a simple vase of blooms can bring into your life - and the best thing is, you can always do a Mrs Dalloway and buy the flowers yourself as a gift of self-love this V Day.
John Gibson RA, Cupid and Psyche (c. 1859)
Celebrated 19th century sculptor Gibson depicted the story of Cupid and his love Psyche in a stunning series of marble facades that are part of the Royal Academy’s collection. If you’re looking to get struck by Cupid’s arrow this February, you might want to learn a little more about his origin story - he didn’t have the greatest time of it.
He fell in love with Psyche, despite the fact his mum Venus demanded he make her fall in love with an ugly monster (she was jealous of how beautiful Psyche was.) Psyche was not allowed to look at Cupid, so when she disobeyed this order, Venus set her a number of appallingly cruel tasks. Cupid, unable to bear Psyche’s suffering, pleaded with the gods to make her immortal, and eventually they were married in heaven. And you thought using Tinder was stressful.
Paris Bordone, A Pair of Lovers (1555-60)
This work is thought by some to depict Daphnis and Chloe, who did not have a great time of it according to Greek myth. Abandoned at birth, they were discovered by a goatherd, later falling in love in between herding flocks for their parents. Things take a dark turn later, when attempts were made to abduct Chloe and beat up Daphnis. All’s well that ends well though: they got married and lived out the rest of their lives in the country. You can see this painting at the National Gallery.
Paolo Veronese, Happy Union (c. 1575)
This painting, on show at the National Gallery, is part of a series called Allegories of Love. The exact meanings of each of the four paintings is open to debate, but they are thought to represent unfaithfulness, scorn, respect and happy union. The latter, seen above, will get you feeling the love; the couple’s union is marked by a laurel wreath, the olive branch symbolises peace, whilst the dog represents fidelity and the gold chain held by the boy is a symbol of marriage.
Thomas Gainsborough, Mr and Mrs Andrews (1750)
This pair must be one of the most famous married couples in art: Gainsborough painted this work, which is part of the National Gallery’s collection, after the marriage of his friend Robert Andrews to Frances Carter. The space on Frances’ lap remains blank; it’s thought that the artist was reserving the space to paint a child for her to hold.
Solomon J. Solomon RA, St George (c. 1906)
Solomon’s painting, which is part of the Royal Academy’s collection, shows our patron saint St George slaying a dragon and rescuing a maiden from its claws. We’re waiting for the feminist update where St Georgina saves a worried young lad from a fiery dragon - but until then, you have to admit that it’s quite romantic.
Jan van Eyck, The Arnolfini Portrait (1434)
The Arnolfini Portrait is regarded by many as a revolutionary artwork, thanks to Van Eyck’s use of perspective, expansion of space and iconography. (The reflection on the mirror on the back wall is a tiny marvel in itself.) It depicts Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini and his wife at home - she is not pregnant, just up to date with the then contemporary fashion of very full-skirted dresses. It may be one of the most famous artworks in history, but at the end of the day it’s just a married couple kicking back at home with their dog - check out the casual slippers in the background. See it at the National Gallery.
Sandro Botticelli, Venus and Mars (c. 1485)
Mars, God of War, sleeps on whilst Venus, Goddess of Love, sits awake watchfully. The message of this masterpiece of classical painting seems to be that love conquers all (and that some people can even sleep through a cherub blowing a trumpet in their ear). It’s part of the National Gallery’s collection, where you can find out more about Botticelli.
Frederic George Stephens, The Proposal (The Marquis and Griselda) (c. 1850)
Stephens’ work can be seen in Tate Britain’s Walk Through British Art, the gallery’s exemplary chronological display of some of its permanent collection. This work depicts a scene from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales: in the Clerk’s Tale, a marquis proposes to a poor peasant girl then subjects her to a series of trials to test her love. She eventually wins his devotion.
After Edward Penny, engraved by George Townly Stubbs, The Respectful Lover (c. 1796)
This painting contains one of the most romantic things you can ask for: respect. And who doesn’t enjoy a nice country walk with their beloved?