Emotions in art

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Emotions are a set of complex feelings ranging from positive ones such as joy or love, to more negative ones like grief, or despair. Throughout history, artists have been concerned with expressing emotions and representing them in their work. How have art and artistic movements represented emotions?

I. Art as a medium to express emotions

1) Representing diverse emotions

Human emotions have long constituted the very material of art and they can be expressed no matter the artistic medium. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet (c. 1604), Ophelia sings of her despair before committing suicide by drowing. In Ophelia (1851), Pre-Raphaelite painter John Everett Millais depicts a moving portrait of Ophelia’s corpse floating in water among flowers.


The Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood was a society of young artists opposed to Raphael’s classical ideals of beauty (namely the representation of an idealized human form).

Artists have often used their own emotions in the making of their work. For example, in “In Memoriam A.H.H.” (1850), Lord Alfred Tennyson expresses his own grief and laments over the death of his closest friend. However, beyond the mere expression of the poet’s feelings, this elegiac poem takes on a more universal meaning and delves into the nature of sorrow.

An emotion may serve as the very subject matter of an artistic piece. In Pharrell Williams’s hit pop song “Happy” (2013), the singer uses both music and lyrics to describe happiness itself.

2) Expressing the intensity of feelings

One of the purposes of art is the expression of emotions, to different degrees. Love is one of the most intense of feelings and love song is an extremely well-represented genre in pop music. Song expresses emotions through verbal means and through the music itself. While The Beatles expressed the lighter side of love in “All You Need is Love” (1967), contemporary singers such as Adele focus on heartbreak in songs like “Rolling in the Deep” (2011).

Art may be used to explore the human condition and deal with darker and powerful emotions. In Edward Albee’s play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962), the disturbing depiction of the protagonists’ emotional struggle following the death of their child pervades (imprègne) the work although it is not revealed up until the end.

II. Emotions as a source for artistic movements

Self-expression has been central to the creation of several artistic movements highlighting emotions in codified forms.

1) Romanticism and the “overflow of feelings”

British Romanticism began as a response to the Industrial Revolution, celebrating personal feeling and rejecting social conventions. Early Romantic poets such as William Wordsworth (“I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud”, 1802) emphasized the importance of nature and solitude. Later Romantics, such as Lord Byron (Don Juan, 1819; Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, 1818), were more politicized and advocated personal freedom.

The Romantic movement continues on, for instance in movies like Jane Campion’s Bright Star (2009) in which she portrays John Keats (“Ode to a Nightingale”, 1819), whose work and life embodied the ideals of Romanticism.

2) Transcendentalism: the self and the universe

Transcendentalism is an American cultural movement that stemmed from English Romanticism in the late 19th century. It focused on emotions as well as senses, creativity and individualism. Its most famous proponents, Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson believed that each individual was part of infinite nature.

Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (1855-1891) took up aspects of Transcendentalist ideas, such as the link between macrocosm and microcosm, and lent it poetic form. However, Whitman’s emphasis on sexuality led him to create an artform that was his own, and break away from pure transcendentalism.