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Emotion in the history of art

by Claudia Moscovici

We tend to associate art and emotion. The Romantic notion of art as the product of an emotive, sensitive and inspired artist who creates masterpieces to move the public has not altogether disappeared from the popular imagination. Yet, in recent history—particularly since the movement of art for art’s sake in the nineteenth century and the formalist and conceptual currents of the twentieth century—emotion has almost disappeared from art itself. Even in the movement of conceptual art most closely associated with emotion and spirituality—abstract expressionism—emotion is a part of the process of artistic creation and palpable in the moving effect of art upon (some) viewers rather than readily recognizable in the artistic object itself. There is, of course, no eternally valid rule that dictates that emotion should be an inherent part of a work of art—or of any part of the artistic process, for that matter. And, in fact, art has not always existed as separate from artifact and artistic objects have not always been valued for their expressive powers.

For the ancient Egyptians, to offer one notable example, art served a largely symbolic and religious function. Tombs, busts and paintings were used as a means of preserving and glorifying the souls of kings, queens and other privileged members of society. E.H. Gombrich tells us that, appropriately enough, one Egyptian word for sculptor was “He-who-keeps-alive.” Egyptian artists depicted the human figure not as they saw it, nor to express or provoke emotion, but to capture the essence of an important person’s spirit for the afterlife by representing his or her body from its most characteristic angles. The face was shown in profile; the eye from the front; the shoulders and chest from the front; the legs from the side, with the feet seen from the inside and toes pointed upward. (The Story of Art, 60-1). For millennia Egyptian figures had a frozen and immobile, non-expressive look that strove to freeze the souls of powerful men and women in time and to safeguard their happiness in the afterlife.

Greek art was perhaps the first—and certainly the most influential art in the Western tradition–to capture the essence not only of the human spirit, but also of the human form, with all its movement and powers of expression. In Greek art, we feel, even the body seems infused with a soul. Myron’s famous sculpture of the discus thrower, Discobolos (c. 450 B.C), which is of the same era as the better known works of the sculptor Pheidias, displays the beauty, poise, force and movement of a young man’s efforts to launch the discus he holds in his hand. The sculpture is not entirely naturalistic—in the sense that athletes who would try to assume the same position would not be able to throw the discus very far. Nonetheless, it captures the elegance and athleticism of the male body in the first blush of youth. Part of this sculpture’s naturalism lies in the way it conveys movement and emotion through the positioning and poise of the body. This artistic video on classical sculpture by Philip Scott Johnson highlights this phenomenon:

More generally, classical Greek and Hellenistic sculptures rarely look stiff or contrived because of the way in which the human form is balanced: often in a position of counterpoise, with the weight shifted upon one leg, which allows sculptors to reveal the muscular curvatures of the body.

While classical Greek sculpture tends to focus upon the beauty of the human form, Hellenistic art—the art of the empires founded by Alexander the Great’s followers—places increasing emphasis upon the expression of emotion. The kinds of feelings represented in Hellenistic sculpture, however, are not those of everyday people in ordinary circumstances. Rather, Hellenistic art usually exhibits the emotions of extraordinary individuals engaged in tragic conflicts. To offer one well-known example, the sculpture Laocöon and his sons (175-50 B.C.)—executed by HagesandrosAnthenodoros and Polydoros of Rhodes–immortalizes the story of a priest who is being punished by the gods for forewarning the Trojans not to accept a giant horse which, as it turns out, carried inside it enemy soldiers.

This sculpture was rediscovered in Rome in 1506 and many art historians believe that what was found was not the original sculpture, but a Roman copy. Whether or not it is the original work, The Laocöon Group made a strong impression upon Italian Renaissance sculptors, especially Michelangelo. Laocoon is frozen in an image of terrible anguish since his punishment consists of having to witness two gigantic snakes emerge from the sea and suffocate with their coils his beloved sons. Hellenistic art, at least in this representative sculpture that would become a favorite during the Renaissance and the Neoclassical periods, privileges the expression of a kind of emotion that is at once mythical and dramatic: mythical in its literary and religious references, dramatic in its depiction of human tragedy.

The painting and sculpture of the Renaissance masters continues to focus upon the expression of emotion on a grand scale and to grapple with the connection—as well as the hiatus–between the human and the divine. Michelangelo’s The Dying Slave (1513), for example, reveals the moment when the slave lets go of earthly life as his soul escapes toward heavenly existence.

Despite the twists and turns of his beautiful, muscular form, the slave’s body reflects the resignation, tranquility and spirituality of the transition from life to death. Emotive expression, Michelangelo shows so well, is not necessarily primarily located in the face. The whole body, every movement and gesture, expresses the feelings and attitudes reflected in the face.

This total, eloquent expressivity of sculpture reaches its apex, many believe, in Lorenzo Bernini’s The ecstasy of Saint Teresa (1645-52). The sculpture represents the sixteenth century mystic in a state of rapture. We witness the moment when the angel of God pierces the young nun with a golden arrow, provoking the paradoxical feelings of pleasure mixed with pain and of sensual abandon mixed with divine illumination. As she swoons, half-closing her eyes and slightly opening her lips with ecstasy, Saint Teresa becomes the very embodiment of religious fervor, spiritual attunement and passion. Even the drapery that enfolds her body swirls and twists around her with the same mixture of passive yet passionate frenzy visible on her face.

But what about the expression of more modest, individuated feelings? In the modern period, few artists were as thoughtful and successful in showing the relation between human form and feeling as Auguste Rodin.

Constantin Brancusi considered Auguste Rodin not only a precursor, but also the first great modern sculptor. “In the nineteenth century,” Brancusi declared, “the situation in sculpture was desperate. Rodin arrived and transformed everything.” In a way, Rodin was fortunate that initially he wasn’t part of the system. Rejected several times by the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Rodin was not trained according to the rigid academic standards of the time. Nonetheless, he never gave up and showed great confidence in his talent. In 1865, for example, his sculpture The Man with the Broken Nose (1865 and 1875) was initially rejected by the jury of the Salon, partly because the clay fissured and the sculpture cracked in the back of the head.

L'Homme au nez cassŽ

Years later, Rodin redid the sculpture, whom he regarded as his “first good sculpture,” and this time it was accepted by the Salon. Rodin would follow his own path, but like the Impressionists, he also sought acceptance and acclaim by the artistic establishment.


After a trip to Italy, the works of Michelangelo served as his main inspiration. Like the Renaissance masters, he studied human anatomy. In fact, his sculptures were so life-like in his sculptures that his first major work, The Age of Bronze (1876), caused a great controversy. Rodin was accused of cheating by making it from a live cast of his model. Rodin protested and put together an impressive dossier defending himself, but to no avail. In Rodin’s defense, his model, Auguste Neyt, recalled “I had to train myself to strike the pose. It was hardly an easy thing to do. Rodin did not want straining muscles; in fact, he loathed the academic ‘pose’… The master wanted ‘natural action taken from real life.” (http://www.musee-rodin.fr/en/resources/chronology-auguste-rodin)

Eventually, however, thanks to recommendations made by influential friends, the French government bought the sculpture in 1880 for the hefty sum of 2000 francs. Henceforth Rodin’s fame would continue to rise.


The charge of the Salon could have been further from the truth. Rodin never worked from live casts. He asked his models, both male and female, to walk around freely in his studio. Often he would follow them around, making rapid sketches of their movements. When he spotted them in a particularly interesting pose or expression, he would try to capture it quickly, modeling in clay. For Rodin, as for Michelangelo, the body itself was expressive of emotion. He stated: “I have always endeavored to express the inner feelings by the mobility of the muscles.” It is said that Rodin’s wife, Rose Beuret, once stormed into his studio in a fit of rage and began screaming at him. She would have had plenty of reasons to be upset with Rodin since he notoriously cheated on her with his young models, most of whom were can-can dancers. Instead of responding in kind, however, Rodin quickly modeled her angry expression in clay, saying “Thank you, my dear. That was excellent.” Nothing was as inspirational for him as visible emotion, read in facial expressions and gestures.

Despite the religious allusions of The Gates of Hell, his chef d’oeuvre, Rodin brings emotion down to earth by materializing a passion that functions not only as a connection between the human and the divine, but also as an intimate and profound connection between earthly lovers. Perhaps no one else has described Rodin’s most sensual and moving sculpture, The Kiss, as eloquently as his friend, the art critic Gustave Geffroy:

“The man’s head is bent, that of the woman is lifted, and their mouths meet in a kiss that seals the intimate union of their two beings. Through the extraordinary magic of art, this kiss, which is scarcely indicated by the meeting of their lips, is clearly visible, not only in their meditative expressions, but still more in the shiver that runs equally through both bodies, from the nape of the neck to the soles of the feet, in every fiber of the man’s back, as it bends, straightens, grows still, where everything adores—bones, muscles, nerves, flesh—in his leg, which seems to twist slowly, as if moving to brush against his lover’s leg; and in the woman’s feet, which hardly touch the ground, uplifted with her whole being as she is swept away with ardor and grace.”

Rodin revealed human love and life as a process of mutual creation between women and men. Passion is not only a union with those we desire and adore, but also an elevation through shared feelings and sensuality which is always in process, never complete. His representations of the fragility of our mutual creation were as inchoate, vulnerable yet compelling as the material shapes that seemed to emerge only part-finished from the bronze or blocks of stone.

We have seen that art can serve many different purposes in different contexts such that it’s impossible to define it in relation to any set of common qualities, including emotion. Yet, as I have also suggested, when emotion is materialized in art, it renders artistic objects all the more poignant, moving and palpable for viewers. The expression of emotion not only touches us, but also enables us to connect to artistic creation in a way that’s unique and irreplaceable.