The Depression-era song “A Kiss to Build a Dream On,” which Louis Armstrong made famous in the ’50s, finishes with the lyrics: “Oh give me your lips for just a moment/ And my imagination will make that moment live/ Oh give me what you alone can give/ A kiss to build a dream on.” Over the course of art history, painters, sculptors, poets, and photographers have — as the song suggests — used their vivid imaginations to bring the kiss to life as a symbol of fresh love, renewed love, and even black-and-blue love.
With Valentine’s Day in mind, we’ve selected the 10 best art kisses — ranging from erotic embraces in paintings by Gérôme and Klimt and sensual smooches in sculptures by Rodin and Brancusi to lustful lip-locking in works on paper by Picasso and Man Ray — so that you, too, can share the love. If we missed one of your favorite make-out moments in art, tell us about it in the comments.
Click through below for a gallery of images.
Jean-Léon Gérôme’s 1890 painting of Pygmalion and Galatea, from New York’s Metropolitan Museum’s collection, depicts a tale from Ovid’s Metamorphoses of Pygmalion creating a sculpture of Galatea, which he envisions as the ideal woman and wishes could be real, being brought to life by the goddess Venus and joyfully embraced by the artist in his studio.
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s 1892 painting, In Bed: The Kiss, captures two prostitutes from a brothel in a lip-locked moment of lesbian love. After painting several female couples getting cozy in bed, Toulouse-Lautrec supposedly said, “This is better than anything else. It is the very epitome of sensual delight.”
One of Auguste Rodin’s most famous sculptures, The Kiss portrays the 13th-century Italian aristocrat Francesca da Rimini, who fell in love with her husband’s younger brother, Paolo. According to the tale in Dante’s Inferno, when their romance was uncovered, her husband killed them — before their love had ever been consummated. Thus, in the sculpture, the lovers’ lips never actually touch.
Gustav Klimt’s erotic masterpiece, The Kiss, depicts a couple, who together reportedly form the shape of a penis, in a locked embrace. Rumored to be Klimt and his red-haired lover, Emilie Flöge, the “golden period” painting is one of the artist’s most beloved and iconic images.
Man Ray’s 1922 camera-less photo, which he dubbed a rayograph, shows a couple kissing, their hands overlaid on their faces, and the darkroom trays — all caught in ghostly shadows. A fascinating portrayal of chance occurrences on a piece of photographic paper, it illustrates one of the artist’s most quoted maxims: “I do not photograph nature. I photograph my visions.”
Marc Chagall and his wife Bella lightheartedly float in a state of romantic bliss while kissing to celebrate her birthday. Painted shortly after his return from Paris to Russia to take Bella as his bride, The Birthday, which resides in the MoMA’s collection, shows that the artist was willing to bend over backwards to prove his love.
The Kiss, by French-Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi, offers a symbolic interpretation of a male and a female body merging into one. The fourth of several versions of the lovers that Brancusi carved throughout his career, this piece is the most geometric. Wrapped in a tight embrace and joined at the mouth and eye, the couple become one, as real-life lovers often do.
A surrealist masterpiece, René Magritte’s 1928 painting, The Lovers, evokes a strange sense of mystery. The veiled lovers embrace, but are unable to fully express their love because of the deathlike cloths that cover their heads —keeping them forever apart.
Devouring one another in a lustful embrace, Pablo Picasso’s horny lovers in his 1967 drawing, The Kiss, share a passion that goes way beyond the bedroom. Drawn with a few spontaneous pencil marks shortly before Picasso’s 86th birthday, the piece captures the artist’s joy of life.
Roy Lichtenstein painted several version of cuddling couples, but Kiss V from 1964 is our favorite. A refined interpretation of a comic book illustration, the painting stylizes the figures in a pop art vocabulary, while enlarging the emotional embrace to the point of iconic impact. It’s uncertain whether the couple is being reunited or painfully saying good-bye, but what is evident from the kiss is that they are very much in love.