Valentine’s Day can be quite the polarizing “holiday,” but whether your box of candy hearts is half full or half empty, there’s an artwork somewhere in the museum’s collection that comes from a similar point of view. We asked our blog contributors to pick the work that best exemplified the emotions they associate with this day. Add your own in the comments!
As an angsty teen visiting the Art Institute years and years ago, I sat in front of the Chagall’s America Windows back when they overlooked McKinlock Court and thought about how I was in the exact spot where Ferris Bueller kissed Sloane. I wanted to be Ferris but I was definitely more of a Cameron. I didn’t mock authority figures, steal vintage sports cars, or have a girlfriend who affected a British accent for fun and somehow looked hot in culottes. In recent years, though, the Fight Club theory of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off has surfaced, wherein we view Ferris as a figment of Cameron’s imagination, a freewheeling id who is everything that Cameron, the tightly-wound diamond-forming superego, is not. In the end, Cameron faces his fears and no longer needs his imaginary cool friend. This is the lesson I’m taking for Valentine’s Day. All you other Camerons out there should do the same. Destroy the Ferrari, go kiss your own Sloane. You know the line: life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in awhile, you could miss it.
My pick is Berthe Morisot’s Woman at Her Toilette. One of several works by the artist depicting women in various stages of getting ready, this painting is not explicitly about love. But, it never fails to make me think of my beautiful wife, Shari, who bears a strong resemblance to the woman in the painting. Years ago, probably when we were still dating, I gave her a postcard of this image for Valentine’s Day. At the risk of being unoriginal, I’m going to use it again now. Happy Valentine’s Day, Shari-girl. I love you.
As Romeo and Juliet or almost any character from a soap opera can attest to, there’s almost nothing sadder than star-crossed lovers and the notion that no matter how much you love someone, external forces can conspire to keep you apart. The woman in the painting above laments the outcome of another ill-fated couple, Heloise and Abelard. This 12th century student and teacher had an illicit affair much to the consternation of Heloise’s uncle. As the result of a misunderstanding, the uncle ordered Abelard castrated (!!) and the two lovers were separated and lived out the rest of their lives in the seminary, she as a nun and he as a monk. Nonetheless, they communicated via letters, the text of which can be seen on the pages in the painting. The woman shown has a wistful look on her face as if she’s also experiencing some sort of love-related angst, further illustrating that the problems of single ladies are nothing new.
This preparatory study by Sir David Wilkie depicts a young woman covering the eyes of a man who, in the final painting, sits writing at his desk. His parted lips suggest both surprise and a response to the imperative title Guess My Name. Though little is known about the private life of Wilkie, he was not known to have found much luck in love. The subject for this piece may be informed by such disappointment. According to Allan Cunningham, the painter’s friend and biographer, the young woman asks the man to guess her name using a disguised voice. Cunningham writes, “The heroine of this picture, as the painter himself informed me, had the mortification to hear the man she loved pronounce another name than her own.” Not all contemporary audiences seemed aware of this unfortunate outcome, however. Fellow painter C.R. Leslie imagined happiness for the young woman “which will probably lead her to change her name.” Gross…
Taking Cues from 18th Century Painting to Add Zest to Your Valentine’s Day:
1. Mountain goats—Forget candle-lit dinners: alpine is in. Add a scrappy herd of goats to your serene mountain picnic.
2. Color blocking—Dress your man in vibrant yet simple primary colors that will capture the attention of the goat herd while complimenting your own elegant look.
3. Grapes—Keep your skin looking great by loading up on the antioxidants in this delicious fruit.
4. Show some skin (but not too much)—Keep it classy but don’t be afraid to wear something revealing. Wear it right and your date will be eating out of your hand.
5. Bring your kid (goats and children)—Conventional wisdom says to hire a babysitter on Valentine’s, but keep it frugal by asking your goats to handle it for an evening.
—Carl K. and Carla K.
Marc Chagall. America Windows, 1977. A gift of Marc Chagall, City of Chicago, and the Auxiliary Board, commemorating the American bicentennial in memory of Mayor Richard J.Daley. © 2010 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris.
Berthe Morisot. Woman at her Toilette, 1875/80. Stickney Fund.
Auguste Bernard D’Agesci. Lady Reading the Letters of Heloise and Abelard, c. 1780. Mrs. Harold T. Martin Fund; Lacy Armour Endowment; Charles H. and Mary F.S. Worcester Collection.
Sir David Wilkie. Guess My Name, 1821. Regenstein Endowment Fund.
Francois Boucher. Are They Thinking about the Grape? (Pensent-ils au raisin?), 1747. Martha E. Leverone Endowment.