November 13, 2021 – March 13, 2022
George Frederic Watts, Ellen Terry ('Choosing'), oil on strawboard mounted on Gatorfoam, 1864, Accepted in lieu of tax by H.M. Government and allocated to the Gallery, 1975, Primary Collection, NPG 5048
This pioneering exhibition will present masterpieces from the Collection of the National Portrait Gallery, London, in an innovative exploration of love's role in the creation of some of the greatest masterpieces of Western art by artists such as Sir Joshua Reynolds, Angelica Kauffmann, David Hockney, Lee Miller, and Sam Taylor-Johnson, among others. Organized thematically with works spanning from the late 16th century to the present day, it will make the argument that ideas of love and desire have been critical to the development of portraiture since the genre's emergence in the English Renaissance. More so than other art forms, portraits—sometimes given as tokens of love—offer visual records of relationships, celebrate key moments like engagements and weddings, and serve as memorials to deceased or absent lovers.
At the heart of this exhibition is a series of real-life love stories, captured through the likenesses of sitters—from the 16th-century to storied couples like David and Victoria Beckham, Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, and John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Each of the love stories sheds light on a different aspect of romantic love and the role of portraits within it through images which capture artists' obsessions with their muses to those that record tragic love affairs or celebrate the triumph of love against the odds.
From notions of romantic love as a dangerous illness at the beginning of the modern era, to today's celebration of romance as a means of finding fulfillment in life, this exhibition ultimately reveals love as a constant and defining element of the human experience over the past 450 years.