Evolution of Tears in Art

Famous detail from Alexandre Cabanel 's The Fallen Angel painting

Expressing and producing human emotion in art is an admirable skill that many artists have mastered throughout art history. Certain art subjects can produce emotional responses on behalf of its viewer, sparking inspiration, empathy, or sadness. Why is it, for example, that we feel emotionally drawn to certain artworks? Why do we stare in awe at the Mona Lisa, wondering if she is happy, content, or angry? Why do we travel across oceans to see our favorite painting or sculpture, gazing at it from across a crowded museum? Artwork’s ability to evoke human emotion is often seen as an undeniable keystone of experiencing art. We may experience this out pour of emotion for a variety of art styles and forms. However, when the art itself is able to effectively replicate the expression of human emotion in an artistic figure, a new aesthetic experience is formed.

 

Crying is a universal human emotion. We have all cried tears of sorrow and joy at one point in our lives. It is estimated that the average human cries between one and five times a month, according to various studies. Because crying is universal, it is reflected in many artworks, serving as a symbol of the human experience and vulnerability.

Close up Van Der Weyden
Van Der Weyden close up

The teardrop is a powerful motif in painting. One of the first artists to begin painting teardrops was Giotto di Bondone. As a stark contrast to the rigid, immobile figures of the earlier medieval periods, the “Father of Renaissance Art” painted humanistic and expressive figures. Giotto was one of the first artists to paint tears rolling down a face, specifically within religious paintings such as The Massacre of the Innocents. This changed the trajectory of art, as artwork shifted from stiff hieratic pieces to works that truly show the realities of human emotion.

 

 The Massacre of the Innocents was completed around 1305. The painting portrays a story from the New Testament, wherein Herod ordered the execution of all two-year-old boys within Bethlehem. On the left side of the piece stands the soldiers, on the right stands the mothers. In the middle of the composition lies a pile of massacred children. The piece’s symmetry is broken by one mother, who desperately clings to her son as a soldier rips him away. The group of mothers are weeping as their children are taken away. They appear helpless and visibly upset. Within a detailed closeup of The Massacre of the Innocents, you can see thin streams of tears falling from the women’s faces.

Ophelia
Ophelia
Ophelia close up
Ophelia close up

Artist Tracey Emin created My Bed, a testament to an intense period of her life. Emin’s work features an unmade bed surrounded by crumpled tissues, empty liquor bottles, and cigarettes. The pillowcase is stained with tears, illuminating the power of tears during a moment of intense emotional turmoil.


Throughout history, teardrops remain a powerful visual motif in art, capable of conveying a wide range of emotions and experiences. Whether used to express grief, love, or hope, they continue to resonate with viewers across cultures and time periods.

Giotto, The Massacre of the Innocents

 
Giotto, The Massacre of the Innocents

In the later years of the Renaissance, Rogier van der Weyden expanded upon Giotto’s tears. Whereas Giotto’s tearful subjects featured long streams of paint across a face, Van Der Weyden gave the tears more realism by making them more like three-dimensional droplets, working more with texture, dimension, and lighting. Van Der Weyden’s greatest accomplishment in the art world is his portrayal of human emotion. A closeup of his piece The Descent from the Cross reveals multiple weeping subjects around the body of Jesus, positioned toward the viewer to enhance their visual and emotional impact on viewers.

 

In Romanticism, tearful subjects were used to portray the expression of powerful emotions in love and longing. For example, Sir John Everett Millais’s Ophelia depicts Shakespeare’s tragic heroine weeping in a stream before her death. Rather than being shown with droplets of tears in her eyes, Millais’s Ophelia appears listless and unaware that she is drowning. Her tear-stained face shines through the water as she continues singing in accordance with her description in Hamlet. During the same period, Alexandre Cabanel painted The Fallen Angel, depicting a tearful Satan shielding his face after his fall from heaven.


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