In ancient times, doctors believed that human beings functioned according to four "humors" or essential fluids. These were also related to four main temperaments that explained human behavior: blood was related to a sanguine temper, yellow bile to cholera, phlegm to apathy, and black bile to melancholy. This medical system prevailed for more than 2,000 years and dominated many fields of human life. So, we can find the presence of Humorism in many scientific, philosophical, literary, and artistic works, especially when it comes to the black bile.
We often think of melancholy as a negative emotion. While it’s true that it derives from a depressive state, it actually has positive implications. This universal human emotion, nuanced by sadness, consists of a longing for the past, a process of nostalgic introspection that awakens our deepest creative instincts. Here are 10 paintings in which their creators portrayed the different aspects of melancholy:
Edvard Munch - Melancholy (1894)
"It is a melancholy truth that even great men have their poor relations."
- Charles Dickens
The man in this painting is Jappe Nilssen, a close friend of Munch. Nilssen had a romantic affair with a married woman who finally decided to stay with her husband, causing a deep sadness in the painter's friend. In this work, a thoughtful Nilssen sits by the shore, looking at the horizon, while in the background we can appreciate the shapes of a woman and a man about to get on a wooden boat, representing the lost love of Munch's friend. The misty colors and elongated contours convey the sadness and impotence the character feels after this love deception.
Louis-Jean-François Lagrenée - La Mélancolie (18th century)
“There's little of the melancholy element in her, my lord: she is never sad but when she sleeps; and not ever sad then; for I have heard my daughter say, she hath often dreamt of unhappiness, and waked herself with laughing.”
- William Shakespeare
Little has been said about this particular painting, but in it the noted French Rococo painter depicts a woman with a sad visage, resting her head on her hand, the common position to describe Melancholy in art. She seems to be lost in thought and the yellow ochre contrasts beautifully with the dark background, highlighting the power of her thoughts.
Domenico Fetti - The Repentant St. Mary Magdalene (1617-21)
"I can barely conceive of a type of beauty in which there is no Melancholy."
- Charles Baudelaire
The image of Mary Magdalene as the embodiment of melancholy was a common and repetitive motif in the European art of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This painting by Fetti portrays Mary Magdalene in a classical posture representing the emotion. This motif depicts the life of this important character after the death of Jesus Christ. It shows a contemplative woman, longing for those days when the Messiah was still among his people.
Vincent Van Gogh - Portrait of Dr. Gachet (1896)
“I began to understand that suffering and disappointments and melancholy are there not to vex us or cheapen us or deprive us of our dignity, but to mature and transfigure us.”
- Hermann Hesse
Perhaps one of the artists who’s more associated to melancholy is Vincent van Gogh. Dr. Gachet, who took care of the artist in his last months, is portrayed with a gloomy countenance. As the artist states, he depicted his friend with a “melancholy expression, which might well seem like a grimace to those who see it... Sad but gentle, yet clear and intelligent, that is how many portraits ought to be done.”
Aertgen Van Leyden - St. Jerome in his Study by Candlelight (1520)
“Melancholy is sadness that has taken on lightness.”
- Italo Calvino
Melancholy is a remembrance from the past that requires self-introspection. In this painting, Van Leyden recurs to another highly popular theme in European art: the image of St. Jerome in his study. Recognized as a Doctor of the Church, St. Jerome spent years in the desert to meditate about religion and humanity’s role in it. The saint's countenance displays the melancholy that clouds his thoughts on mortality. Like Mary Magdalene's portrait, he cradles a skull, because when melancholy dreary shadow appears, death's darkness is not far behind.
Pablo Picasso - Melancholy Woman (1902)
“Nothing thicker than a knife's blade separates happiness from melancholy.”
This portrait of a woman belongs to Picasso’s famous Blue Period that, as some critics believe, started after the suicide of one of his closest friends. This period is characterized by monochromatic images painted only with shades of blue. The use of this color evokes sadness and despair, turning the portrayed characters of this period into melancholic figures.
Artemisia Gentileschi - Mary Magdalene as Melancholy (1625-26)
“I wrote when I did not know life; now that I know life, I have no more to say.”
- Oscar Wilde
Using the motif of Mary Magdalene as an embodiment of melancholy, Gentileschi depicts a more realistic woman in a natural position and relaxed face. Gentileschi is known for portraying empowered women who don't really follow the rules of etiquette and established social behaviors.
Salvador Dalí - Uranium and Atomica Melancholica Idyll (1945)
“All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy; for what we leave behind us is a part of ourselves; we must die to one life before we can enter another.”
- Anatole France
The bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima caused a great impact on the surrealist painter. This painting with countless symbols and motifs is a criticism of the war. It represents human decay, death, depression, and devastation; however, it still manifests moments of hope and a possibility of redemption.
Frederic Lord Leighton - Lachrymea (1894-95)
"But when the melancholy fit shall fall
Sudden from heaven like a weeping cloud,
That fosters the droop-headed flowers all,
And hides the green hill in an April shroud
- John Keats
Belonging to the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, Leighton depicts a woman standing next to a funerary monument. The Greek elements of this painting represent the nostalgia this group of artist felt for ancient times.
Paul Gauguin - Nevermore (1897)
“I felt that I breathed an atmosphere of sorrow.”
- Edgar Allan Poe
In his unique use of Tahitian elements to depict his vision of life, Gauguin presents a woman painted with somber colors that evoke melancholy together with her countenance. It's said that the name of the painting refers to Poe's most famous poem.
These paintings show that melancholy is an emotion that can cause misery and sadness, but it’s also the feeling that pushes us to move forward. Melancholy has always been attached to the creative process of artists and writers because it conveys self-introspection and analysis. If you’re interested in how art evokes certain emotions take a look at 10 Paintings That Show How Solitude Can Be Your Best Companion.