8 Famous Artists Who Turned Heartbreak into Art

Alexxa Gotthardt
Feb 11, 2019 10:20PM

Auguste Rodin couldn’t bear it when an argument temporarily ruptured his romantic relationship with fellow sculptor Camille Claudel. “In a single instant I feel your terrible force,” he wrote to her in a passionate 1883 letter. “Atrocious madness, it’s the end. I won’t be able to work anymore…yet I love you furiously.”

But Rodin did work throughout their volatile romance, creating some of his most desperately passionate sculptures, including both The Kiss (1882) and The Eternal Idol (1890–93).

Like Rodin, countless artists throughout history have channeled feelings of heartbreak into their work. The resulting pieces run the gamut from impassioned and cathartic to deeply mournful. Below, we explore how artists from Edvard Munch to Frida Kahlo to Felix Gonzalez-Torres have responded to the agony and upheaval that follows losing a lover.

Frida Kahlo, Little Deer (1946)

“I suffered two grave accidents in my life: one in which a streetcar knocked me down.…The other accident is Diego,” Frida Kahlo said in a 1951 interview. Kahlo was referring, of course, to her husband and fellow artist Diego Rivera, with whom she had a deeply volatile relationship. Their marriage toggled between passionate highs and bitter lows; the latter were often inspired by Rivera’s insistent cheating, and infidelity on Kahlo’s part, as well.

Nearly 10 years after they married, Rivera began an affair with his wife’s sister, an indiscretion Kahlo couldn’t tolerate. The two artists temporarily divorced in 1939, a year when Kahlo also painted The Two Fridas, a direct response to the split. The masterful canvas presents two self-portraits: the Kahlo loved by Rivera, and the Kahlo dismissed by him. One figure, which holds a small pendant depicting Rivera, boasts a heart that is intact and full. The other holds a pair of scissors dripping with blood; a hole in her chest reveals only the remnants of a maimed heart. Other later works, like Little Deer (1946), might also refer to the pain inflicted by the relationship, as well as Kahlo’s immense physical suffering from the numerous surgeries she underwent during her life.

Edvard Munch, Ashes (1894)

Edvard Munch, Ashes, 1895. Image via Wikimedia Commons.


Norwegian Symbolist Edvard Munch routinely plumbed the depths of his own anguish, using it as source material for his work. Illness, existential woes, and the untimely deaths of loved ones informed some paintings; others drew inspiration from the tempestuous romances that marked his life. In the mid-1880s, when he was in early twenties, Munch met Millie Thaulow, an older, married woman whom he’d see in secret. He was infatuated with her, then devastated when she ended their liaison.

“An experienced Worldly woman appeared and I received the Baptism of Fire,” Munch wrote of their affair and its collapse. “I was subjected here to the whole Disaster of Love—and I was for several Years nearly mad.” Munch painted several works responding to the mind-altering heartbreak he endured. In Love and Pain (1893–94), a vampiric woman with flame-red hair looks less like she’s embracing her ashen paramour than draining the life from him. Ashes (1894) explores a similar motif: A woman stands virile and triumphant in the center of the canvas, while a man cowers in enfeebled misery to the side. A charred log connects the two figures, alluding to the fiery demise of love.

Marina Abramović & Ulay, The Lovers: The Great Wall Walk (1988)

Marina Abramović
The Lovers, 1988
Sean Kelly Gallery

Soon after meeting in 1975, Marina Abramović and Ulay began collaborating on performances inspired by the physicality, intimacy, and gender dynamics of their relationship. In Breathing in / Breathing out (1977), the artists locked mouths for almost 20 minutes, relying on each other’s breath to stay alive. Several years later, they conceived of their most ambitious work: Each would walk from opposite ends of the Great Wall of China, meeting in the middle to wed. But in 1988, when the time came to realize the piece, their relationship had disintegrated. “Now we were no longer lovers and, as seems to be the fate of romantics, nothing was as we had imagined,” Abramović later remembered. “But we didn’t want to give up the walk.”

As planned, the artists traveled for 90 days—walking a total of 2,500 kilometers—along the wall. When they met in the middle, they ended their relationship, then continued walking past each other to cement the act. “For her, it was very difficult to go on alone,” Ulay said of The Lovers: The Great Wall Walk, as they titled the piece. “For me, it was actually unthinkable to go on alone.”

Sophie Calle, Take Care of Yourself (2007)

Sophie Calle
Take care of yourself. Feist, 2007

When French conceptual artist Sophie Calle received a break-up email from her boyfriend, he didn’t know it’d become fodder for her next project. At the 2007 Venice Biennale, Calle unveiled an exhaustive, mesmerizing dissection of her ex’s letter, titling it after his sign-off: Take Care of Yourself. The piece began as a form of therapy to soothe the heady mix of heartbreak, bewilderment, and shock that comes after a lover unexpectedly severs ties.

In an attempt to make sense of the email, she invited 107 women to “analyze it, comment on it, dance it, sing it…dissect it…[and] exhaust it” using their professional expertise. A lawyer applied methodology rooted in constitutional law, determining that he was “punishable.” A forensic psychiatrist assessed him as a “twisted manipulator.” A sharpshooter used the note for target practice. Performers like Feist and Laurie Anderson put his words to heart-thrumming music. “After one month I felt better,” Calle said of the catharsis that followed. “There was no suffering. It worked. The project had replaced the man.”

Felix Gonzalez-Torres, “Untitled” (1991)

Felix Gonzalez-Torres,“Untitled,” 1991. Installation view: “Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way.” PinchukArtCentre, Kiev, Ukraine. © Felix Gonzalez-Torres. Courtesy of The Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation.

Conceptual artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres once described his oeuvre as “one enormous collaboration with the public.” Elements of his installations were meant to be happened upon, touched, disseminated, and taken home; the social concerns they addressed were amplified by human interaction.

This concept reached something of an apex in 1991, when the artist mounted a potent image on 24 billboards across New York City. It showed an empty, rumpled bed, where the impressions of two bodies were still discernible: deep, soft indentations in cloud-like pillows. Gonzalez-Torres made the work the same year his partner, Ross Laycock, died from an AIDS-related illness. The piece simultaneously addressed the artist’s personal grief and universal emotions like love, intimacy, and loneliness, as well as the politics surrounding the AIDS crisis.

Francis Bacon, Triptych–In Memory of George Dyer (1971)

English painter Francis Bacon’s work seethes with the raw pain of agony and heartache, expressed through figures who wail and contort as emotions course through them. He created some of his most searing paintings in response to the 1971 suicide of his longtime lover, George Dyer.

Bacon had previously saved Dyer from numerous attempts to end his own life, but this time, he was unsuccessful. A series of triptychs showing Dyer’s knotted, suffering body represent the subject’s pain, as well as Bacon’s own feelings of guilt and unbridled grief. “It seems mad to paint people once they’re dead, since you know that, if they haven’t been incinerated, their flesh has begun to rot,” the artistonce said. Even so, he processed his despair by reviving Dyer on the surface of his tumultuous canvases.

Lee Krasner, Charred Landscape (1960)

Between 1959 and 1962, Abstract Expressionist painter Lee Krasner made a series of immense, dusky, turbulent compositions sometimes called her “Night Journeys.” She embarked on them several years after her husband, famed drip-master Jackson Pollock, died in a car crash, and the canvases expressed an intoxicating mix of heartbreak and liberation.

“Let me say that when I painted a good part of these things, I was going down deep into something which wasn’t easy or pleasant,” she recounted to her friend Richard Howard in 1979. While wracked by grief, Krasner had also been freed from Pollock’s shadow and the pain of his insistent philandering. The dark slashes of paintings like Charred Landscape (1960) seem to represent both deep melancholy and untethered exuberance.

Alexxa Gotthardt
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Jenna Gribbon, Luncheon on the grass, a recurring dream, 2020. Jenna Gribbon, April studio, parting glance, 2021. Jenna Gribbon, Silver Tongue, 2019