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Art shows love’s evolution

Depictions of romance throughout history inform understandings of love in the modern era

Come February, one can hardly enter a drug store without experiencing a visual assault of walls lined with mass-produced cards, chocolates and pinks of every shade — ubiquitous evidence of the commercialism with which Valentine’s Day has come to be associated. But the Valentine — and romance itself — has a long and illustrious history beyond Hallmark sales.

Courtly love first made an appearance in the 12th century as a way for women to seek out “fulfilling love” despite politically arranged marriages, wrote Elizabeth Bryan, associate professor of English, in an email to The Herald.

Literature of the time depicts conflict between heterosexual and homosocial relationships, whose “dilemma fuels many a narrative plot in the Romance genre,” she wrote.

In the early modern period before the French Revolution, art was completed on commission, said Evelyn Lincoln, associate professor of history of art and architecture and Italian studies. Chests, or cassoni, were gifted to a couple upon their marriage. They were inscribed with scenes of weddings and mythology. The underside of the lids portrayed a nude man or woman, as if sexuality were an object to be kept safe along with the riches of a marriage, Lincoln said.

Early modern art tends to depict love as a triumph after battle, Lincoln said. The end of a courtship was a staged conquest, where a man would steal a woman away on horseback and ride off with her.

Relationships were not strictly heterosexual. During the Renaissance, same-sex friendships had a more amorous quality. Men could share a bed and openly declare their affections for one another, said Richard Rambuss, professor of English.

“They could be, so to speak, getting it on, or not at all,” he said.

Seventeenth-century writer John Milton’s concept of the relationship moved away from marriage for political gain and toward a companionate relationship, founded on bonding and intimacy, Rambuss said. This resonates with current debates over the definition of marriage. Milton’s depiction of Adam and Eve in “Paradise Lost” detaches sex from procreation — they freely had sex in the Garden of Eden without the intention of reproducing.

Common settings for romances included the pastoral, in which a couple would escape into the forest together, and military scenarios, Rambuss said.

In the Victorian era, Valentine’s cards were tailored specifically to the intended recipient, said Vanessa Ryan, assistant professor of English. Among the most successful were cards created by professional artists.

Cards varied “from domestic, personal craft to a more professional, commercial art,” she said.

Victorian novels had a steady focus in the courtship leading up to marriage, or “the marriage plot,” Ryan said, adding that this interest derived from the instability of motivation behind choosing a suitor.

According to family historians, the 18th century marked a shift from companionable relationships — those that founded “security and strengthening larger social ties” — to romantic marriage, which is more self-interested and based in erotic attraction and desire, Ryan said.

But the Victorian novel explores the idea that perhaps the foundations for marriage were not so dichotomous. The heroes and heroines of these stories are confronted with options, which ultimately lead to greater self-realization.

In literature, Victorian courtship is conducted in public. Common motifs include walks and excursions, balls and drawing-room songs — “maybe you do a duet together,” Ryan added. Unspoken attraction is highlighted through a blush, a stammer or a stolen glance.

Though the Victorian novel has moments when gender is well defined, its fundamentals hold sway in a variety of partnerships, gay or straight, Ryan said.

Science can now shed further light on modern romance. The body’s reward system is the product of evolution, designed to drive an organism towards survival through hunger, thirst and arousal, said Julie Kauer, professor of molecular pharmacology, physiology and biotechnology.

Foods such as chocolate, which are especially high in fat, act on the hypothalamus, which projects to this reward pathway to induce pleasure, she said.

There is also a social component to food cravings. In the United States, men report chocolate cravings less frequently than women, while a South American culture reports identical desire between sexes, she said.

Certain foods do not necessarily induce arousal — the “aphrodisiac” myth — but Kauer said they might lower the threshold at which other sensory inputs activate sex drive.

Kauer also speculated that falling in love works on the same reward pathway in the brain that leads to addiction.

“You start to crave that person,” she said.

“Love is such a big concept and such a changing concept,” Ryan said. “It really resists the generalizations.”


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