History is full of famous couples: Antony and Cleopatra, Christian and Esmeralda, Bonnie and Clyde. And so it goes for art history. There are many famous artist lovers that have become recognised as a couple or in their own rights. Here, we delve into some well-known romantic coupling, their work as artists and the peaks and pitfalls of their relationships.
SALVADOR & GALA
Gala Dalí is more recognised for being the wife and muse of Spanish surrealist artist, Salvador Dalí. However, what history seems to disregard is that she herself was an artist in her own right. Although overshadowed by her more famous husband, the Russian divorcee had produced a unique body of her own artwork during her lifetime.
The two first met in 1929 when Gala was on holiday in Cadaques with her family and the artist Magritte and his wife. Despite the ten year age gap, the love affair between the two quickly developed and soon they were fully in love with one another.
Gala and Dalí married in a civil ceremony in 1934, without the approval of Dalí’s father, who didn’t want his son marrying a Russian divorcee. But Dalí’s love for Gala was too strong, he was obsessed with her and she was his primary muse for his artwork. He remarks about his love for his new bride in his autobiography, My Secret Life: “She was destined to become my Gradiva, the one who moves forward, my victory, my wife.”
Gala died in June 1982, two years before her husband’s death. She was buried in the crypt of her castle in Pubol. Prior to Gala’s death, Dalí requested the construction of two tombs with a small opening between the two, where they could hold hands beyond death.
FRIDA & DIEGO
Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera’s infamously passionate relationship involved two marriages, a divorce and a string of extra-marital affairs.
The two first met when Kahlo was in art school and Rivera was already an established artist. There was twenty years between them and, to Frida’s family’s dismay, they married in 1929. It’s well-known that Frida’s father described the pairing as “the elephant and the dove”.
Frida and Diego were both Mexican artists in their own rights – Rivera a prominent muralist and Kahlo a surrealist painter. And they were both political activists. In fact, Kahlo had an affair with Soviet revolutionary Leon Trotsjy while the couple were providing him political asylum in their home.
Their marriage was not a conventional one. Frida once remarked about it saying, “Being the wife of Diego is the most marvelous thing in the world … I let him play matrimony with other women. Diego is not anybody’s husband and never will be, but he is a great comrade.”
However, the relationship brought great heartbreak for Frida Kahlo who famously wrote in her notebook that the two great accidents in her life were the terrible crash that left her “broken” and the time she met Diego Rivera – the love of her life.
ALFRED & GEORGIA
Artists Alfred Stieglitz and Georgia O’Keeffe met in 1916 when Stieglitz was a 52-year-old, world-famous photographer and O’Keeffe was a 28 years old, Texan art teacher, only just starting her career in art. Steiglitz was her mentor and he supported her career by exhibiting the young artist’s work and helping her to become recognized in the art world.
They later married in 1924 and the two had mutual respect for each other, personally and professionally. However, their relationship was not without their difficulties. O’Keeffe was yearning for a child and Stieglitz didn’t share the same feelings. Moreover, the couple lived with his family, which put a strain on their relationship. Soon, O’Keeffe decided to move to New Mexico to place more focus on her art. It was there that she found her artistic calling.
Although the move was hard for the couple, they adapted to the new setup and remained together until Stieflitz’s death in 1946. Their entire relationship – from casual friends to lifelong partners – is recorded in over 25,000 letters that the couple exchanged between 1915 and 1946.
LEE & MAN RAY
Before Lee Miller moved to Paris in 1929, she had already established herself as a successful model in New York. But she had ideas of becoming an apprentice for her future lover. The story goes that she had called on him unannounced at a café. Man Ray had informed her that he was just about to go to Biarritz for a holiday where she speedily replied, “so am I”.
Lee Millar soon became known as the lover, assistant and muse to the surrealist photographer, but she had developed her own photography career, becoming an active member of the surrealist movement. However, Millar’s success as a photographer put strain on their relationship – there wasn’t any room for two successful photographers in the relationship. However, Man Ray’s artwork that features Miller reflects his infatuation with his love.
WILLEM & ELAINE
Willem and Elaine de Kooning were American abstract expressionist painters. They had met in 1938 when Elaine’s art teacher introduced her to her future husband and he began instructing her in drawing and painting and helping her to become the fine portraitist that she would later become.
They exchanged vows in 1943 but their marriage was anything but traditional. They were both known for their sexual promiscuity and they both had several partners during their open marriage. Between the affairs and heavy drinking, they were forced to separate in the 1950s. However, their love for one another was too strong and they reconciled in 1976 when she began managing his studio. They stayed together until Elaine’s death in 1989.
MARINA ABROMOVIĆ AND ULAY
In 1988, Serbian performance artist Marina Abromović and her partner, German artist Ulay, staged one of the most epic pieces of performance art in history. The couple had been creating work together for many years but their relationship had become strained. Their next performance piece would dictate the future of their relationship. Lovers, a performance art piece in which each started at opposite ends of the Great Wall of China and walked 2,500km to the centre where they would meet and get married. However, things didn’t go as planned. During the 5 years that they had been waiting for permission to do the walk, their relationship had changed. Affairs were involved and communication had broken down. So, the performance finale had changed from marriage to a break up. After the show was over, they both went their separate ways and they didn’t speak for more than 20 years.
Fast forward to 2010 and Abromović is staging The Artist is Present piece at MOMA where she would sit for two and a half months, opposite museum attendees. Ulay had surprised her with an arrival and sat opposite her during her performance, eliciting a highly emotional response.
You can watch the moment here: