Public Media Arts Hub

New exhibit chronicles how love has been depicted in art through the ages


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: We haven't mentioned it yet, but as I'm sure everyone watching knows, today is Valentine's Day.

And while you're thinking of your Valentine, we wanted to share something that London's National Portrait Gallery has for the first time put on international tour:, some of its works depicting love and desire.

Special correspondent Jared Bowen of GBH Boston shares these love stories with us for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jared Bowen: At the Worcester Art Museum, love abounds, romance is romanticized. This is what love looks like, even what it sounds like.

Lucy Peltz>, Senior Curator, National Portrait Gallery

Jared Bowen: The hand of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who wrote that sonnet, is cast here in bronze, held by that of her husband, fellow poet Robert Browning.

Lucy Peltz: We have not just the clasping hands. With them, we have the paired portraits of Robert and Elizabeth, both in their separate spheres, both independent minds, but inclining gently towards each other, reflecting their continuous support.

Jared Bowen: These galleries could also be described as love on the run. The art here represents centuries of some of the greatest holdings in London's National Portrait Gallery.

But with the museum temporarily closed as part of a $47 million renovation, they're out on an international tour. It's launched in Worcester, Massachusetts, under the banner Love Stories.

Lucy Peltz is the show's curator, speaking to us from London.

Lucy Peltz: Touring shows some of our absolutely cherished highlights and masterpieces that otherwise would rarely go on loan. And it's also been an intellectual project, because, for the first time, the largest and most important collection of portraits in the world, i.e., the National Portrait Gallery, has considered from the point of view of the role of love and desire.

Jared Bowen: It's love in the time of the Renaissance, love among the ruins, and everlasting love.

Perhaps I'm asking you to play psychologist here, but can you tell me why I and so many others are just so mesmerized by a sleeping David Beckham?

Lucy Peltz: I can tell you why I'm mesmerized by it.


Lucy Peltz: He's very beautiful. I might imagine myself lying in bed just contemplating him, as I might do my own partner, and so the intimacy, and just enjoying that sense of his ease.

Claire Whitner, Director of Curatorial Affair, Worcester Art Museum

Jared Bowen: Claire Whitner is the Worcester Art Museum's European art curator.

Claire Whitner: We see very intimate moments and our own interests, sort of as a pop culture for the love of celebrities, and how do we consume the love of others?

Jared Bowen: She says John Lennon and Yoko Ono cultivated their love for an eager public, while Audrey Hepburn positioned herself as a muse.

Claire Whitner: You see this kind of multiplication of her public image in one particular photograph, getting at that point of becoming a public muse, you know, someone that is the projection of mass desire.

Jared Bowen: Here, love is manufactured, and it's messy. Mary Wollstonecraft ran away with the married poet Percy Shelley, finding both love and the inspiration for "Frankenstein."

Then there's Wallis Simpson and Edward, duke of Windsor, who renounced the British throne. This is Cecil Beaton's wedding day photograph. So why the long faces? It was taken just as he likely learned she wouldn't receive a royal title.

And then there's the love saga of Lady Emma Hamilton. Known for dancing nude at private house parties, she was the muse of 18th century portrait painter George Romney. She had numerous affairs with aristocracy, including Charles Greville.

Claire Whitner: But, ultimately, Greville becomes tired of Emma, and he sends her to live with Lord Hamilton, his uncle. He falls in love with her. And they get married. And all is going well, until Horatio Nelson shows up and begins this torrid love affair.

She bears his child. And Lord Hamilton, rather than separating with Emma, decides that they're just going to all three of them live together in this sort of menage a trois.

Jared Bowen: And that's not even the love that dare not speak its name. That was Lord Alfred Douglas writing about his affection for Oscar Wilde, a love that landed Wilde in prison, recalls Lucy Peltz.

Lucy Peltz: There's a lovely quotation by Wilde from a letter to a friend after he comes out of prison, saying, "The very fact that he's ruined my life makes me love him more."

Jared Bowen: This being a British show, the fitting finale is the facade of the fairy tale, the ongoing one that has played out within the royal family.

But, says Peltz, it's one that implicates us all.

Lucy Peltz: The final section, Love and the Lens, which ends with Harry and Meghan looking absolutely besotted with each other, and what we know evolved, and whatever we may think of their decision, we think back to Diana and the terrible events that befell her as a result of our desire as consumers of images of celebrity life, and especially celebrity romance and celebrity heartache.

Jared Bowen: Just one of the many love stories you will find here, for better or for worse.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jared Bowen in Worcester, Massachusetts

Judy Woodruff: And if you can't get to Worcester, that exhibit will next be at the Baker Museum in Naples, Florida, but you have to wait until early 2023.

Support Canvas

Sustain our coverage of culture, arts and literature.

Send Us Your Ideas
Let us know what you'd like to see on ArtsCanvas. Your thoughts and opinions matter.