How do artists depict emotion in art?

In the early 20th Century, there developed an art movement called "Expressionism," in which the artist was more interested in expressing an emotional experience and less focused on depicting realism. The art work could be a record of what the artist was feeling at the time of making it, and it could also bring about emotional reactions in the viewer.

In a previous investigation, we took a look at art by Matisse, Picasso, Lichtenstein, Chagall and others to see how these modern masters showed emotion in their art. We've decided to revisit this issue, and to take a look at a different group of artists and see what approaches they've taken in order to depict emotion in their art. One thing that we're seeing more this time is the way the artists have made the subject's hands an integral part of the expression of the emotion. Let's take a look at a few examples below.


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Here's two art works that both depict sadness ... what I find interesting by the painting at left, by David Alfaro Siqueiros, is that he's able to convey emotion without even seeing the person's face. The placement of the hands and the lines defining the knuckles sends the message that this person is fighting back tears. Below right we have Vik Muniz's reinterpretation of Picasso's famous "Weeping Woman," but this image is a photograph of piles of pigment laid out to mimic the original. She also has a hand up to her face, and her eyebrows arching up helps convey her emotional state.

emotion in art by David Alfaro Siqueiros and Vik Muniz

Here's a pair of paintings that epitomize fear: at left, a self-portrait by Dutch artist Pieter Van Laer from 1638. He's screaming out in terror as he sees the approach of the devil, as depicted by the monster-like hands reaching for him from the right side. At right, a painting by an unknown artist at the 2011 Armory Show; do you agree with me that this painting also depicts fear? Is it because of the extra big, extra round eyes, or the teeth that seem to be chattering?

painting by Pieter Van Laer, a self portrait in fear of the devil

painting by unknown artist as seen at the 2011 Armory Show in NYC

Here's a painting below left where the artist went ahead and labeled the emotion for his art: shame! The subject's hands are up covering his or her face just like the hands in the Siqueros painting, but in this case they're covering the face in shame rather than wiping away sadness. The painting below right is a challenging picture for you to interpret: what emotion do you feel from looking at this painting? Is it anger, as the hand crumples some paper in a moment of disgust? Or is it sadness, as a hand clutches a used Kleenex? What do you think? (both of these paintings are by unidentified artists at the 2011 Armory Show)

Shame May Be Fatal, by unidentified artist at 2011 Armory Show in NYC

painting showing a hand crumpling some paper

(Editor's note: I wish I had inquired about the names of the artists from the 2011 Armory Show whose work is included here. If you recognize any of these unidentified artists, please contact Artsology so that I can give proper credit for these art works.)