Top 5 most emotionally impactful paintings

October 2, 2018

Art, generally speaking, is emotional. The artist’s expected relationship to the consumer is to provide relatable emotional resonance and connection. How each individual responds to art is, of course, a product of the person, rather than the art. Art is just the catalyst. Paintings have a tendency to be the most abstract of the art forms, which, depending on willingness to participate, can either cause a mental disconnect or an emotional reaction. The following works were selected with the common theme of emotionally charged reactions in mind.

  1. Disgust-“The Third of May, 1808” by Francisco Goya, is a graphic depiction of a Spanish firing-squad executing rebels. The painting’s contrast between the blackened skies and troops with the ‘protagonist’ in white is a juxtaposition that subconsciously attacks the observer’s empathy, as it creates a cleaner feeling for the victims. This aspect is representative of the artist’s disgusted view of violence, which is also shown in the surrounding people. A friar can be seen in the foreground of the painting attending to wounds as the villagers hide their faces in horror. The faces that shown are of desperation and longing. This scene’s graphic depiction of war and inhumanity is constructed to force the consumer into feelings of disgust and desperation at the face of the human condition.
  2. Hope- “Soria Moria” was painted by Theodore Kittelson in the late 19th century for a book of the same name. This work and its quiet color pallet can be described as serene or depressing, depending on the mindset of the observer. However, I would argue it displays the hope of longing, in its simplicity. The only clear sections of the painting are the front, with the man and his current surroundings, and the distance, with the sun (the destination). What this does is communicate a sense of journey and longingness through its smear of the in-between locations. The subject has his back to the past and is only certain of where he is and where he needs to be. In short, this is senseless hope incarnate.
  3. Sadness-This abstract work, entitled “Blue, Green, and Brown,” was painted by artist Mark Rothko is the early 1950’s. While this painting, as well as many of his, can be seen overly simple, it has a profound emotional effect on the consumer. The color pallet is almost violently deep, with its incredibly rich blue devouring most of the painting. The green and brown bars are supressed to the point of near-invisibility by their larger immediate neighbor. This is contrasted by the top layer’s waning ‘control’, as its colors grow lighter and more stressed. While it can be read into as control devolving into chaos, or ‘power in numbers’, the immediate, resonating impact is sadness. It does not depict a washed out and pastel depression, but a violent and overbearing sadness.
  4. Serenity-“Impression, Sunrise” by Claude Monet, is meant to evoke a feeling of serenity and subtle turmoil from the audience. The water-like structure and coloring give the painting a woozy and cerebral charm that intoxicates the observer’s vision. The stark contrasts in color that would cause immediate reactions are not present. Instead, every color is blended into its environment. The sun’s red bleeds into the sky, as the blues of the shore fall into the sea. The blackened ships of featureless men reflect subtle in the ocean’s wave. This attention to detail causes the effect of the details blurring and a nostalgic feeling of remembrance to waid into the subconscious of the onlooker. The stark red of the sun is the only point of the painting that feels absolute, which causes a small but distinct upset to the flow of the painting. It is almost as if the world is being blurred by the sun.
  5. Love– Perhaps one of the most famous paintings in the history of the art form, “The Kiss” by Gustav Klimt is a gloriously affectionate and impactful painting. It depicts two lovers sharing an embrace, as well as the titular kiss, on a mound of flowers. The one-of-a-kind, mosaic feel the center of the male displays is a disjointed harmony of blacks and yellows. Yellow is distinctly chosen as the theme of this painting, possibly in an effort to make the subjects stand out as holy. The rich flowers and textures of the female provide a gorgeous juxtaposition to the edgy and constant tone of the rest of the painting. It is almost as if the yellow of the work is symbolic of heaven, as the sky diminishingly emulates the starkness of their hues. Every choice of color and change of texture provides a feeling of sanctity and holiness in love. Klimt is demonstrating how in one moment, two people ascended higher into heaven by a simple embrace of the soul. 


While no art is objective, artists have spent millenia trying figure ways to disprove that. Emotional reactions can vary between people, so concrete evidence to one work’s specific appeal in any direction is nearly impossible. However, the techniques used in the above paintings are just a few examples of how artists can use forethought, personal experiences, universal themes, avant-garde styles, and juxtaposition to trigger reflection in those willing enough to pay attention to their finer details. So, while anyone can say any of these works caused them to feel any different combinations of emotions, the foundation for contemplation was set in stone; or rather, the canvas.

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