The Romantic Gestures of 7 Famous Artist Couples

Alexxa Gotthardt
Apr 17, 2019 9:40PM

Art has long been inspired by great romances and lovers turned muses (or vice versa), so it’s no surprise that artist couples have gone to great lengths to communicate their love. On the occasion of the forthcoming bookThe Art of Love: The Romantic Pairings Behind the World’s Greatest Artworks, we share the ambitious romantic gestures of seven influential artist couples.

Camille Claudel and Auguste Rodin turned their fierce passion into famed sculptures

Camille Claudel
Bust of Rodin, ca. 1889
Museo Soumaya

Auguste Rodin and Camille Claudel fell in love hard and fast when they met in 1882. She was a wunderkind sculptor with a knack for channeling the virile energy of the human body into clay; he was 24 years her senior and already famous for his towering, deftly hewn sculptures. Their letters reveal the fierce passion and extreme volatility that marked their relationship. “In a single instant I feel your terrible force,” Rodin wrote to Claudel the same year they met. “Atrocious madness, it’s the end. I won’t be able to work anymore…yet I love you furiously.”

During their affair (Rodin was already in a 20-year-long relationship with Rose Beuret), the two artists deeply influenced each other’s work. Claudel’s sculptures exuded humanity and sensuality, which Rodin gleaned during the years they worked side-by-side in his Paris studio. Scholars have conjectured that the rapturous, intertwined figures in two of Rodin’s most celebrated pieces—The Kiss (1882) and Eternal Idol (1890–93)—were inspired by his love for Claudel and her expert handling of clay.

Pablo Picasso presented Dora Maar with a miniature painting on a ring

Pablo Picasso, ring with a portrait of one of Picasso’s muses, Dora Maar, late 1930s. Photo by Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty Images.

Pablo Picasso is notorious for being a womanizer and philanderer who swiftly moved from muse to muse. A heady mix of passion, altercation, and short-lived reconciliation defined most of his relationships, including his nine-year liaison with Surrealist photographer Dora Maar. The two met in 1936 at the famed Parisian café Les Deux Magots. She was plunging a knife repeatedly between the fingers of her gloved hands; he was enthralled by her dangerous game and left with her gloves as a memento.

Picasso painted Maar many times during their fiery romance, and often gifted the works to her after particularly angry rows. One such olive branch came in the form of ring. Where a gem would normally reside, Picasso nestled a small rendering of Maar, complete with wide, lopsided eyes and a blue striped chemise. Though the relationship went up in flames when Picasso left her for the younger Françoise Gilot in the early 1940s, Maar kept the ring until her death.

Frida Kahlo painted a sensual flower for Nickolas Muray

Frida Kahlo had many lovers during her turbulent marriage to Diego Rivera, but Nickolas Muray was one of the most enduring. Muray, a New York–based photographer, met Kahlo during his trip to Mexico City in 1931. A note from Kahlo scrawled on a doily immortalizes the first days of their passionate affair: “I love you like I would love an angel,” she wrote to him. “You are a [lLilly] of the valley my love.”

In their extensive correspondence, Kahlo affectionately signed letters with the nickname Xochitl, after a Nahuatl word for “flower” or “delicate thing.” In 1938, she gave Muray a painting of a flower, which has been interpreted by scholars as a creative representation of their relationship. The small canvas radiates with innuendo. Kahlo composed the flower as two unified parts: a bell-shaped vessel resembling a vagina and a phallic bundle of petals nestled within it.

Dorothea Tanning and Max Ernst refused to call each other husband and wife

Dorothea Tanning
Lettre d'Amour (Love Letter), 1969
Thomas French Fine Art

Max Ernst was helping his wife, the storied art patron Peggy Guggenheim, research artists for her upcoming exhibition “30 Women” when he first encountered fellow Surrealist painter Dorothea Tanning. Ernst visited her studio and stayed for a game of chess. Three weeks later, he left Guggenheim and moved straight into Tanning’s apartment.

In 1946, they married in an idiosyncratic double ceremony alongside fellow artist Man Ray and his partner, dancer Juliet Browner, in Hollywood. Ernst nodded to the event in his 1948 painting Chemical Nuptials, an alchemical term for the melding of sulphur and mercury, as scholar M.E. Warlick has pointed out. While they’d formalized their relationship, the couple resisted using the terms “wife” and “husband.” “If you get married you’re branded,” Tanning wrote in her 2003 memoir Between Lives: An Artist and Her World. “We could have gone on, Max and I, all our lives without the tag. I never heard him use the word ‘wife’ in regard to me. He was very sorry about that wife thing.”

Joseph Cornell inscribed love letters to Yayoi Kusama in his sculptures

Joseph Cornell
Untitled (Yellow Sand Fountain), 1959
Allan Stone Projects
Yayoi Kusama
Infinity Dots, 1992
Yodo Gallery

The relationship between pioneering sculptor Joseph Cornell and Pop art progenitor Yayoi Kusama was largely platonic but deeply loving. They met in 1962, when one of Cornell’s collectors suggested Kusama as a live model, and infatuation followed. Cornell, who was still a virgin and living with his mother at age 59, began sending Kusama copious love letters and poems, some of which were scrawled inside his signature surrealistic collage boxes.

One poem reads: “Fly back to me / Spring flower / And I shall tie a string to you / Like this butterfly / I taste some of / The drink in your / Glass that you leave / I drink to Yayoi / Now— / I think of my princess.”

Cornell died in 1972, leaving Kusama boxes of magazine cuttings and other collage materials, which she used in the work that would jumpstart her artistic career in Japan in the later part of the decade.

Gilbert & George fell in love at first sight as young art students

Gilbert & George
Portrait of the Artists as Young Men, 1972
Sies + Höke
Gilbert & George
At Home with Lina Bo Bardi, Living Sculpture (Casa de Vidro), 2012
Fondation Beyeler

Gilbert Prousch and George Passmore, better known simply as Gilbert & George, first crossed paths as students at Central Saint Martins in 1967, quickly becoming a romantic and artistic duo. Prousch has described their meet-cute as love at first sight: “I followed like a dog,” he said of his initial attraction to Passmore. They’ve been inseparable since, translating their bond and life together into art.

In 1969, they created The Singing Sculpture, in which their own bodies became “living sculptures,” and they have placed self-portraiture (often featuring themselves in the buff) at the center of many provocative photomontages. Once, when confronted with the question “What will you do if one of you gets run over?” they answered with signature wit: “Fear not! We always cross the road together.’’

Marina Abramović and Ulay walked across the Great Wall of China to mark their breakup

Marina Abramović & Ulay
Relation in Space, 1976
Richard Saltoun

Marina Abramović and Ulay’s 12-year partnership produced one of the most influential performance art practices of the 20th century. The intensely physical body of work they built while living together in the confined space of a van explored the vicissitudes of human relationships and the endurance required to maintain them. For Relation in Space, a performance piece unveiled at the 1976 Venice Biennale, the two lovers ran from opposite sides of the room, their naked bodies colliding over and over again in the middle. In AAA-AAA, a video from 1978, they exchange violent screams until their voices go hoarse.

Later, they planned to cement their love in their most ambitious performance yet: each would walk from one side of the Great Wall of China, meeting at the center to wed. But by the time they made arrangements, Ulay’s infidelity had been revealed and their relationship disintegrated. In turn, the 1988 performance became symbolic of their parting, rather than their union. When they crossed paths at the Great Wall’s midpoint, the artists marked the end of their relationship.

Alexxa Gotthardt