Emotion plays a crucial role in art. Often artworks are used to express and/or explore the broad range of human emotion. Both artist and viewer may find solace and understanding through artworks. When words fail us, art can become the beacon of light that recognizes some of the more painful emotions that come with the experiences of being human. Below are ten paintings that explore grief, loss, and sorrow.
La Madeleine (Sorrow), Paul Cezanne (1865)
While this image technically depicts Mary Magdalene, this representation of her isn’t readily identifiable as such. The weeping individual carries the weight of pain on their shoulders, and exhaustion is set in their face as if they have already cried a great deal.
The Unequal Marriage, Vasili Pukirev (1862)
This work was unprecedented for its time as it illustrated the role and power money plays in society. A popular belief among the public is that the young bride in the painting was Pukirev’s sweetheart, but because Pukirev was not rich and the older man was, she was forced to marry the latter. The young girl looks resigned to her fate, head downcast, while her much older suitor gazes defiantly down at her. One can’t help but see the millions of other young girls who have met the same fate both in the past and present day.
The Orphan, August Friedrich Schenck (1885)
The Orphan shows the grief and fear of a young lamb, who bleats out for help while standing next to his dead mother. Schenck created another similar painting, Anguish. In Anguish, a mother sheep stands over the still limp body of her lamb. The two paintings become a kind of sorrowful pair. In both images, crows gather around the grief-stricken animals as if biding their time until they can satiate their hunger. The Orphan speaks to the fear and sorrow of the loss to those closest to us.
L’Absinthe, Edgar Degas (1875-1876)
The dull colors in Degas’s L’Absinthe give the work a musty, tired tone. The focus falls on the woman’s face who stares down absently, her drink seemingly untouched before her. She is perhaps caught in a moment of inspection that has led to facing realities in her life that, up till now, she has been trying to ignore.
Ivan the Terrible and His Son, Ilya Repin (1885)
Ivan the Terrible ruled Russia from 1547-1584. Artists often portray him as a strong but bloodthirsty ruler, although some dispute just how brutal or cruel he was. This painting depicts the moment Ivan realizes his son is dying/dead. While there is disagreement about how Ivan’s son died, most believe it was Ivan the Terrible himself, who, in a moment of anger, swung his scepter, landing a deadly blow to his son’s head. Ivan’s eyes protrude with regret and gut-wrenching sorrow in the bloody wake of his actions.
The Old Shepherd’s Chief Mourner, Edwin Landseer (1837)
Man’s best friend rests his sad head on his owner’s casket, mourning the loss of a friend and companion. For whatever reason, there's something about animals in pain that tugs at one's heartstrings, perhaps because we view them as innocent. In this image, one can’t help but feel the desire to reach into the painting and give the sweet dog a good hug and pat his head.
The Irritating Gentleman, Berthold Woltze (1864)
The gentleman in this painting smiles down as if the young girl should be pleased by his attention. He grins at her, evidently noticing her beauty but, by some miracle of ego or willful ignorance, not noticing that the look on her face is utterly uninterested. She stares out at the viewer, tears in the corners of her eyes, a resigned look on her face. She just wants to be left alone, and yet the gentleman persists.
Melancholy, Edvard Munch (1894)
Munch painted multiple versions of this work, but of the six different renditions, two of which were woodcuts, the 1894 version fits the title best. In the forefront, a man rests his head in his hand, looking defeated and sad. The background shows a man and a woman standing on a dock, revealing the source of the man in the foreground’s melancholy, a broken heart, and lost love. While the other versions of this work only vary slightly in composition, the moody colors and curving lines found in the 1894 piece lend to the melancholy feeling.
The Burial of Manon Lescaut, Pascal-Adolphe-Jean Dagnan-Bouveret (1878)
This painting is based on a novel by Francois Prevost. In the book, a young seminary student, Chevalier des Grieux, falls madly in love with the courtesan Manon. He gives up his life for her and, through a series of events, ends up on the run with her. While traveling through the Louisiana wilderness, Manon succumbs to exposure/exhaustion and dies. In this painting, de Grieux is digging his lover's grave with bare hands, he pauses to look into the face of the woman he loves, and a sense of resignation falls over his face as if he has decided that he, too, will die beside Manon.
The Execution of Lady Jane Grey, Paul Delaroche (1833)
After the death of Edward VI in 1553 his cousin, Lady Jane Grey, was placed on the throne. She was 17 years old and only reigned for nine days. Placed on the throne by others, who did not wish the catholic Mary Tudor to take the throne, Lady Jane Grey became a pawn of powerful men. Mary Tudor came forward to claim the crown and to ensure her reign had Jane executed. In Delaroche’s work, Lady Jane Grey is blindfolded, arms stretching to find the chopping block where her life will end. Two of her lady-in-waiting are present both in postures of grief and despair over the death of the innocent young woman.
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