A Survey of Awkward Couples in Art History


Love has spawned many a great masterpiece over the course of art history. But don’t be fooled; just because something hangs on the pristine white wall of a museum doesn’t mean it isn’t a record of extreme awkwardness. From depictions of lovers or spouses to fathers and daughters to siblings, art history is filled with uncomfortable pairings — some of which were always meant to strike us as bizarre and others that only seem strange to 21st-century eyes. We take a look at some of our favorite odd duos after the jump.

David Hockney, Mr. and Mrs. Percy, 1970-1971

Hockney depicts fashion designer Ossie Clark and textile designer Celia Birtwell shortly after their wedding, but the picture is hardly a celebration of newlywed bliss. The couple seems disconnected, emotionally and spatially. Birtwell is dolled up with her hand on her hip while Clark is causally dressed and lounging in a chair, looking detached. The viewer has clearly interrupted an uncomfortable situation — you can almost feel the iciness in the room. The painting proved to be prophetic as the couple separated a few years later. Initially a gift to the couple, Mr. and Mrs. Percy now hangs in the Tate Gallery and is among their most popular paintings.

Grant Wood, American Gothic, 1930

You knew this one was coming. American Gothic is one of the most recognizable works of American art as well as one of the most parodied images in pop culture. Its claim to fame comes from, well, its awkwardness. Though most people take the man and woman to be married, the image is said to be a depiction of a father and his spinster daughter. It might have something to with the way the man sternly holds the pitchfork or the woman’s grimace and severe, center-parted hair combo, but it seems like the pair would rather be anywhere else than standing next to each other. With the onset of the Great Depression, the painting became a symbol of the enduring American pioneer, but because of its palpable awkwardness the work was initially taken as a satire of small-town rural life by the likes of art critics such as Gertrude Stein.

Jean-Honore Fragonard, The Stolen Kiss, 1780s

The young boy in this painting is clearly more committed to this spontaneous tryst than the girl, who seems a bit ambivalent. You can almost see the wheels in her mind turning, weighing the pros and cons as she glances towards the room full of ladies. She’s not exactly lost in the passion of the moment. Whether it’s in a doorway in pre-revolutionary France or a restaurant bathroom, discovering people as they attempt to secretly carry out a rendezvous is always uncomfortable.

Sally Mann, Untitled, 1971

Whether you think Mann is a visionary in the photography world or an exploitative parent who takes semi-pornographic pictures of her young children, her work is undeniably engrossing. This photo is no exception, but it’s disconcerting. We’re not sure if the two people pictured are sisters, mother and daughter, lovers, or friends, but the girl lying down does not look pleased to have someone hovering over her. This could have easily been the inspiration for the horrible teen thriller The Roommate.

Peter Paul Rubens, Roman Charity, 1630

Rubens depicts the classic story of Pero, a selfless daughter who secretly breastfeeds her father Cimon after he’s been jailed and sentenced to death by starvation. The story has been the subject of many paintings, and a version of the tale appears in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. And yet, despite the numerous retellings, this tableau never gets any less creepy.

Jan Van Eyck, The Arnolfini Portrait, 1434

Van Eyck’s painting is chock full of symbolism and has been the subject of many endless art historical debates. This, in combination with the work’s stunning realism, has made critics laud The Arnolfini Portrait as one of the most original and complex paintings in the history of Western art. Obviously, many of the artistic choices are attributed to the time period, but to the modern eye the couple has an uneasy air about them — from the man raising his hand in some sort of stoic declaration to the woman stiffly placing her hand on top of her partner’s.

Fernando Botero, Two Sisters, 2006

Botero is known for his use of exaggerated shapes and ridiculous use of proportion, which are often used to convey irony, humor, and awkwardness. Two Sisters is a prime example of that. Holding an apple in her left hand, the sister in red looks a bit frazzled, while her counterpart doesn’t look pleased to be in the painting either. It reminds us of those times when our parents would force us to pose for pictures on the first day of school. Suddenly, we’re getting flashbacks of unenthusiastically holding up our lunchboxes while pretending to get along with our siblings.

Frida Kahlo, Frida y Diego, 1931

Maybe it’s just because we know the backstory of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo’s tumultuous marriage (which is perfectly summed up in the following Kahlo quote: “I have suffered two grave accidents in my life, one in which a streetcar knocked me down… The other accident is Diego”), but they strike us as a bit stiff in this portrait. Besides the fact that they are barely holding hands, Kahlo and Rivera don’t interact and seem to have no connection to each other. He looks straight at us, clearly conscious of the viewer, while her head is tilted to the side and she seems lost in thought.

John Currin, Lovers in the Country, 1993

A young, blonde bombshell on the arm of a bulgy-eyed, goatish older man with a pipe? It doesn’t look quite right, and that’s because it isn’t supposed to. Currin often uses his mastery of technique to create uncomfortable scenes and relationships.

Rembrandt, The Jewish Bride, 1667

While she doesn’t seem to mind it much, we can’t help but feel awkward by the whole hand on the clothed breast thing that’s happening here. Maybe it’s the fact that they both seem so lost in thought? Or maybe it’s because this was originally believed to be a painting of a father giving his daughter a necklace on her wedding day. Yikes.