Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Couples in Art

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Within the walls of the Metropolitan Museum, one can see images of couples depicted in the art of many civilizations. Traditionally, couples have been thought to be a man and woman. Together they portray a variety of male/female relationships that reflect the social and religious beliefs of the society in which they were made. On a deeper level of meaning, the union of male and female is not only essential for the creation of new life but also for the creation of all things. Images of same-sex pairs also appear in art. Often these pairs are semi-divine twins or brothers bonded together by their remarkable birth and by heroic deeds in legend. In Precolumbian times, Central American chiefs wore cast gold pendants in the shape of twin male figures with animal features (04.34.8). Without written documentation, their meaning remains unclear. Perhaps they symbolized the mythical founders of powerful clans.


It is interesting to note that in some civilizations—Chinese, Korean, and Japanese for example—couples or pairs are rarely featured in art. Instead, the union of complementary dualities necessary for creation, renewal, and continuity is symbolized in the many forms of nature.

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In ancient Egypt, stone sculpture and painted reliefs of couples furnished the tombs of the elite. Standing or seated, idealized and youthful, they were created for eternal togetherness (48.111). In the more recent art of sub-Saharan Africa, figures of couples, usually carved in wood, are abstracted in ways that symbolize the continuity of the community and the ideas of fertility and abundance (1997.394.15).

Images of Greek gods as couples or pairs are often shown in passionate encounters involving tensions between divine and mortal lovers (49.7.16). Biblical and classical images of couples illustrate moralizing tales such as that of a righteous man who is diverted from his goals by a seductive female (1975.1.1416). Legendary lovers, restrained in their amorous actions by sumptuous clothing, are favorite subjects for illustrated pages of royal books commissioned by Persian kings (50.164). The sculptural forms of South Asian deities are remarkably sensual: slim, lithe males and rounded, voluptuous females are metaphors for divine fertility, auspiciousness, and power (1987.218.1).

In Renaissance Europe, portrait paintings of elegantly dressed couples reflect the importance of high-status marriages at royal courts and among the powerful new merchant classes (89.15.19). With the emergence of middle classes in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, there was a growing interest in home and family. Artists were commissioned to portray couples in poses suggesting affection and admiration (1977.10).

As painters in the later part of the nineteenth century focused on ordinary life in cities and the countryside, the relationship of couples in the passing scene seems to be casual or almost detached (29.100.115). In our own times, images of couples continue to be popular, not in the idealized forms of painting or sculpture as much as in the celebrity-centered media of photography, cinema, and television.

It is interesting to note that in some civilizations—Chinese, Korean, and Japanese for example—couples or pairs are rarely featured in art. Instead, the union of complementary dualities necessary for creation, renewal, and continuity is symbolized in the many forms of nature.

Edith Watts
Department of Education, The Metropolitan Museum of Art