The Art of The Kiss: How Auguste Rodin, Pablo Picasso and Others Did It
A personal exchange of feelings between two individuals, the kiss can be a polite greeting, a sign of respect, an expression of caring concern. It can also be a display of sensual love, or sometimes even a sign of deceitful betrayal. In short, a kiss can convey many messages and have many levels of emotion.
Ancient art has few depictions of the kiss. The act is after all often a private matter, a moment of personal, mutually shared emotion. By the 1800's artists were starting to explore the subject more openly. Below are some of the best kisses in art by various artists.
Cannova's "Cupid and Psyche"
In this famous sculpture Venus, the goddess of love and beauty, was jealous of a princess worshiped by the people for her beauty. To change this situation the goddess asked her son Cupid to make the girl fall in love with a horrid monster.
The story reminds us of other tales such as Beauty and the Beast, Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella. It has its ups and downs, but love finally prevails and everyone lives happily ever after since Princess Psyche gets to be a goddess, too.
The creator of this sculpture, Antonio Cannova (1757-1822), was an Italian sculptor who won wide acclaim for his funerary and mythological sculptures. He also lent his neoclassical style to portrait sculptures, including famous ones of people like Napoleon and George Washington.
He often made copies of his most successful works. There are at least two more copies of this kiss, which is said to have revived Psyche after one of her misfortunes.
Auguste Rodin's naturalistic style was considered quite shocking and crude when it was first put on public display.
The nude figure had long been an admired and accepted art form. Greek gods and goddesses had often been shown in all their unclothed and idealized glory.
Renaissance sculptors and painters also depicted many nudes. Even conservative Victorians could accept the classic-style works as being "artistic". But Rodin's figures were not just nude. They were naked.
They were not like the allegorical, romanticized sculpture of classical times. They were not gods offering a lesson about morality. They looked more like ordinary people, neighbors and co-workers -- but without their clothes. People were shocked and outraged.
His rendition of "The Kiss" was both tender and sensitive, quite inoffensive to modern eyes, but to Rodin's contemporary audience it spoke too much of an underlying sensuality . . . even sexuality, that had no apparent redeeming social value. It wasn't related to a philosophical idea or a well known story like the statue of Psyche and Cupid, even though they were almost just as naked.
Originally a similar bronze sculpture by Rodin was meant to represent an unfaithful wife from Dante's Inferno for a larger sculptural group of the "Gates of Hell". A 29 inch bronze version was displayed at the The World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in1893 in a secluded spot with limited access since it was considered unsuitable for general public display.
Constantin Brancusi (1876-1957) was a Romanian modernist sculptor whose simplified forms defied centuries of sculptural tradition with his simple but elegant figures.
His work has the straightforward feeling of folk art which may derive from his peasant background, even though he did have formal classical training and excelled in that area.
His philosophy of expressing "the idea, the essence of things" drove his artistic conceptions. He sought the basic simple form and had an appreciation of primitive sculpture.
He was also acquainted with many well known arts of his era and he even entered the workshop of Aguste Rodin, whom he admired greatly.
Ever independent, he did not stay with Rodin long because he felt he was being influenced too much and wanted to grow his own style. His "The Kiss" gives us only the full frontal contact essentials.
Giotto's "Kiss of Judas"
Giotto de Bondone (1266/76--1337) painted scenes that were startlingly realistic for his time. His intuitive use of spatial perspective, and overlapping figures anticipated the Renaissance systems which gave the realistic illusion of depth to a painted work. In Giotto's work we begin to see individual facial expressions and poses. This was a break from the strict iconic traditions of earlier religious art.
His "Kiss of Judas" representing the betrayal of Christ is unusual in its composition because the expansive golden cloak of Judas almost completely covers the figure of the Savior, as if to hide the despicable act.
The soldier in red, to the left of Jesus is so intent on the scene, that he seems not to notice a disciple cutting off his ear.
Hayez's "The Kiss"
Franceso Hayez 1791-1882 was a prolific and popular Italian portait painter who also did historical and allegorical subjects.
He had a particular talent for capturing the look and "feel" of rich fabrics which may have been a point in his favor to gain so many wealthy patrons who wished to have themselves portrayed wearing their finest clothing.
His kiss painting done about 1859 shows a couple stealing a moment of passion in a secluded corner of a grand building. The man, wearing a traveling cloak and cap is merely a background for the graceful female figure.
The woman wears a spectacular satin dress which practically glows from within. Every tiny fold and crease of the gown changes the light and makes the garment shimmer like a faceted jewel.
Fragonard's "The Stolen Kiss"
Jean-Honore Fragonard (1732-1806) was a French painter who worked in several styles, but was most popular for his romantic and whimsical subjects that were popular with aristocrats of the time.
His work appealed to those who favored the frivolous, fashionable and flirty subjects, decorated with flowers and lace.
Soft colors of flesh and fabric spoke to the self-indulgent and pleasure-seeking upper classes in the days before the revolution and his "kissing bandit" captures the playful audacity of Rococo style.
Cezanne's "The Kiss of the Muse"
Considered one of the founding fathers of the impressionist movement, Paul Cezanne (1839-1906) constantly experimented with light, color and movement in his paintings.
This "Kiss of the Muse" sometimes called "The Dream of the Poet", is one of his early works created before he developed the loose and "constructive" groupings of brushstrokes which characterize his more famous works.
It has a strange and somewhat disturbing quality, (perhaps because it looks as if the poet has expired) which makes us glad he moved on from this style.
Edvard Munch's "The Kiss by the Window"
Norwegian painter Edvard Munch (1863-1944) is best known for "The Scream", but he painted several other works with intense emotional overtones.
His version of "The Kiss by the Window" depicts two lovers who are so much into each other that their faces dissolve into one indistinguishable mass.
The original sketch for the work shows the lovers unclothed, and he finished more than one version.
In this one, they seem slightly off balance, but they anchor one another in their passionate unity. Though we cannot discern their expressions, we can recognize their undeniable commitment to the moment.
Cassat's "Maternal Kiss"
Mary Stevenson Cassat (1844-1926), was an American artist who closely associated with Edgar Degas and other impressionists.
She came from a wealthy family who did not think much of her desire to become a serious artist. At the time, it was perfectly acceptable for cultivated women to paint pictures, but not to make a career of it.
Her teachers and fellow art students, immersed in strict academic tradition of the era, didn't take her seriously either, simply because she was female. She decided to study on her own.
Going through a long period of trying various subjects, styles and strategies, she finally attained some recognition in her later life for her work in the subject area of "mother and child".
It was a theme she approached with great sensitivity, while avoiding the overly-sweet sentimentality that is sometimes associated with the genre.
She often depicts the quiet moments such as this "Maternal Kiss" which reassures a beautiful child who may have experienced a childlike episode of distress.
Picasso's "The Kiss"
Pablo Picasso did many cubist interpretations of "The Kiss." One of them, painted a day before his 88th birthday, was sold for 15.5 million dollars in a 2008 Sotheby's auction in New York.
The version shown here (1969) is slightly different than the large one done in shades of black and white. Some people may say "a kiss is just as kiss", but the auctioned painting, said to represent the artist and his wife Jacqueline, sold for almost seventeen and a half million total, with the buyer's premium. The proceeds of the sale benefited the Nasher Sculpture Center.
More Kisses From the World of Art
Subject in artistic renditions, the kiss can be tender, playful, powerful or lustful. But every kiss has it's own story and sends a message that is given and received with different levels of meaning.
Do you have a favorite "kiss?"
Questions & Answers
© 2009 Rochelle Frank