The notion of joy in life has inspired philosophers, artists, and other thinkers since antiquity.
According to the nineteenth century French historian Jules Michelet la joie de vivre is a harmonious state, a peaceful existence within nature. In English, “the joy of living” is associated with all those things that make life worthwhile. Here are the best of those joyous depictions:
In the year the Cubist Pablo Picasso painted this work, there was not much joy in postwar Europe. The artist himself was holed up in a tiny house on the French Riviera, but his time spent in the nearby museum-turned-studio Chateau Grimaldi spurred his creativity, resulting in a proliferation of works, including his “Joie de Vivre (Antipolis).”
Because his own reality was rather dreary, Picasso used his art to recall the mythical past, painting his lover Francoise Gilot in a dance with the fauns and satyrs, the half-horse, half-men of ancient Greek mythology.
Considered a cornerstone of early modernism, Henri Matisse’s “Bonheur de Vivre” celebrates life the Fauvist way: through brilliant color. The shifting scale of the nude subjects’ pastoral scene begs a closer look and reveals a radical experiment, in which the figures are painted as viewed by each other.
The painting was shocking to the art community for its style and to the general public for its content. Each figure is enjoying its life: nude, in nature, and wildly sensually. In 1908, Matisse said this depiction of hedonistic joy represented his dream for “an art of balance, of purity and serenity, devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter” – a sentiment that was mocked by Picasso for its bourgeois attitude.
Evoking the Northern Renaissance heritage of detailed foliage imagery, deep shadows, and woodcut-like forms, Max Ernst’s 1936 painting “Joie de Vivre” is titled ironically. A tangle of supersized vegetation dwarfs a statue and a fantastical animal, forming an eerie jungle rather than the expected pleasant and harmonious depiction of nature .
One of the most provocative Surrealists of his time, who was even ousted by his Belgian contemporaries for painting too dreamily, Paul Delvaux creates a spirit in this work that in not particularly joyful. His uncanny scene is rooted in real images, though the relationship between figures is not easily defined, but obviously complex. The painting evokes a more psychological reflection on life’s joys.
He may not have a household name, but Robert Delaunay is a star of modern art. His work celebrates both form and color, highlighting his dual influences from Cubism and Fauvism. His works were such a singular achievement that they were given their own art historical style, Orphism, and admired by many, including Paul Klee, August Macke, and Franz Marc of Der Blaue Reiter. His vibrant abstract works like this “Rythme, Joie de Vivre” from 1930 show a mix of cool and warm colors in a dynamic geometric arrangement.
This idyllic image by one of the founders of Pointillism (another is Georges Seurat) is an unironic depiction of scenes of the good life by the sea. Signac describes the work in a 1893 letter to fellow Neo-Impressionist Henri-Edmound Cross:
“Great news! On your advice, I’m going to try a large canvas!… In the foreground, a group at rest… man, woman, child… under a large pine an old man tells stories to the young kids… on a hillside… the harvest: the machines smoke, work, lessen the drudgery: and around the haystacks… a farandole of harvesters… in the center, a young couple: free love!”
Mark di Suervo’s New York City sculpture from 1998 proves that the original concept of the joy of living still inspires in the contemporary era. The 70-foot-tall work is made of two interlocking, red L-beams, which both reach up to the sky and down to the ground. In 2011, the sculpture was famously adopted by the Occupy Wall Street movement as a symbol of the proletariat protests in the plaza where it stands.
Kees van Dongen depicts life at its fullest during the happening scenes of a social gathering. Using Fauvist color to denote sensual details – the green of a woman’s eyes and cleavage, the blush of a couple getting close – the Dutch-French painter was no stranger to the controversy his paintings caused. He along with Henri Matisse and others, exhibited at the provocative 1905 Salon d’Automne, which was a counter-exhibit to the official Paris Salon.
A Cubist sculptor who ran in the same circle as Pablo Picasso, Jacques Lipchitz created his “Joie de Vivre” as a pivotal point in his artistic career. The bronze work from 1927 is looser, more curvaceous that the typical tight angles of Cubism and marks a changing style in its exploration of joy through more organic forms.
Vincent van Gogh’s “Oleanders” is little more than a brightly colored floral still life at first glace. But a surprise is hidden in plain sight. On the table the artist has painted Émile Zola’s novel La joie de vivre (1883). The novel is ironically titled as its bleak story revolves around a child who has lost her parents. For van Gogh, oleander flowers with their hearty nature and plentiful blooms were the physical juxtaposition of Zola’s idea of life – a joyless entity driven by undeserved fate.