"Pity my life and be my wife."
These words were delivered in a round, white box to a Miss Oliver in Hythe, Southampton, in the mid-nineteenth century. The box contained a beautiful Valentine's Day card covered in lace, with a basket of textile flowers in its center. Although we may never know if Miss Oliver accepted the somewhat woefully expressed petition of the man who loved her, we do know that the card and even its container survived the test of time, cherished at the very least as a keepsake.
Miss Oliver's card is not the only one of its kind. Greeting cards—and Valentine's Day cards, in particular—have become a beloved collector's item. Through the bequests of several avid collectors, the Department of Drawings and Prints holds a large group of these cards and gifts within our extensive collection of ephemera. With objects dating from as early as the eighteenth century, the Met's collection of valentines illustrates almost 250 years of traditions related to the holiday, and a selection of this material, principally from the collection of Mrs. Richard Riddell (American, 1910–2010), is on view in the current rotation of selections from the permanent collection in the Robert Wood Johnson, Jr. Gallery.
The association between love and Saint Valentine began in the Middle Ages, but the first known traces of lovers exchanging short, romantic notes on his feast day (February 14) don't appear until the seventeenth century. Over time, more attention was paid to the presentation of these messages in the form of letters, poems, rebuses, cards, and other gifts. Using the latest inventions in decorative paper and graphic arts—colored, embossed papers and (chromo-) lithographs, for example—some of these "tokens of love" became veritable masterpieces of virtuosic craftsmanship.
Germany in particular seems to have played a leading role in the development of the valentine industry and, accordingly, a large part of the earliest valentines in our collection have a German provenance. England followed suit, with a particularly thriving gift card industry during the Victorian period. The United States imported many of these items from Europe, but eventually started to produce its own cards and gifts. Because American tastes were still strongly linked to the European continent throughout the nineteenth century, it's often hard to determine a valentine's distinct place of manufacture without additional information.
Various types of preserved cards show that many clever and endearing ways have been used to express affection—not just to a romantic interest, but also to friends, siblings, and other family members. Although each piece strongly reflects the etiquette and taste of its era, the intimate messages they contain often transcend time and place. What is most striking is how delicate, elaborate, and even exuberant the cards and gifts can be. Many cards were made in relief with craftily cut-out paper frames—made to look like lace, for example, or covered in gilding—and embellished with colorful scraps, dried and textile flowers, beads, precious stones, fabrics, and many other decorative materials.
Because of their three-dimensional quality, these cards were often presented in custom-made boxes, which were, in turn, beautifully decorated. It's not surprising that many of these richly clad, hopeful solicitations were treasured and safeguarded by their recipients, allowing us a glimpse into these ephemeral yet priceless expressions of love.
Another meaningful gesture of love included in the current rotation is found in drawings and prints exploring the theme of the kiss. From the cheeky courtly lovers by the fifteenth-century Master bxg to the anonymous figures caught up in a swirl of movement in Umberto Boccioni's drawing for States of Mind: The Farewells, each kiss has its own story and significance.
In some cases, a kiss is just a kiss—as in Edvard Munch's 1902 woodcut The Kiss IV. In other instances, artists have adopted the kiss as a way of portraying something more abstract: Hendrick Goltzius chose a kissing couple to illustrate Touch in his Five Senses series; William Blake depicted a man and woman rushing into each other's arms and kissing to personify Robert Blair's "Reunion of the Body and Soul" from the poem The Grave (1743).
Mythology's many interesting love stories have induced artists to create ingenious, sensual, and perhaps even slightly bewildering scenes of kissing. A case in point is the painting of Leda and the Swan that Michelangelo painted for the Duke of Ferrara (which ended up in the collection of King François I of France). Although the painting was lost, several copies were made, including an engraving by the Netherlandish engraver and publisher Cornelis Bos.
Through reproductions such as this one, Michelangelo's original, extremely sensual, yet tender and convincing rendering of the story has been preserved. We see Leda straddling a graceful swan—a disguise adopted by Zeus to seduce her—right at the moment when she gently kisses his beak as a sign of surrender to his unwavering advances.
Mythology also offered the perfect framework for artists to experiment with suggestive imagery without causing offense. Illustrations of beloved antique sources held a legitimate place in the wide range of acceptable subjects that didn't breach the lines of propriety, which was a necessary concern for artists. In the 1520s, for example, the engraver Marcantonio Raimondi was imprisoned by Pope Clement VII over his involvement in the production of a book that contained images of everyday men and women making love. A few decades later, Giulio Bonasone cleverly avoided a similar persecution by choosing Greek gods as the protagonists in his provocative print series Loves of the Gods. (However, the fact that it is difficult to identify most of Bonasone's gods today indicates that their guises were thin enough to be ignored by the viewer.)
Aside from the many ways kisses were employed to convey a story or additional meaning, this overview also reveals that rendering a convincing kiss on paper is not easy from a technical point of view—it involves both a thorough understanding of anatomy and a strong command of perspectival drawing. Perhaps that's why lovers' kisses are relatively rare in the graphic arts, more often implied than actually displayed. This may also be one of the most intriguing attractions of this type of imagery, as it allows the viewer to fill in the details of what will happen next.