Toward an Ideal Love: ‘Love Dies in Time’

Reaching Within: What traditional art offers the heart
December 16, 2020 Updated: December 16, 2020

“Love” is a term that we throw around without reserve. We all are guilty of using the term to refer to things we merely enjoy. “I love that song!” we exclaim whenever the newest catchy tune comes on the radio. “I love (insert word here)” has come to mean that we, at this moment, merely enjoy something for the pleasure it provides us.

Traditionally, love was thought of as an eternal thing, as something that transcended the ways of the world. From Plato, for instance, we get the idea of Platonic Love, a love that transcends base passion and moves toward the contemplation of the ideal. Have we lost interest in understanding a transcendent, ideal love?

I came across a painting titled “Love Dies in Time” by the French academic painter Édouard Bernard Debat-Ponsan, which serves as a visual stimulus for me into the woes of love when it’s confused with mere passion. 

Debat-Ponsan depicts an oval composition with four figures in a ferry boat. Cupid leans against the far right of the boat. He covers his face with his right forearm as if he is saddened by what’s in front of him.

In front of Cupid lies a lifeless young woman, who I believe represents Love since she’s the only one dead. She holds her hand in her own as her hair and clothing fall from the boat into the water. 

Behind the young woman, a young man, in anguish, desperately grabs at and pleads with the ferryman to return Love to him. The ferryman is unmoved by his pleading and fulfills his duty, which is to ferry the boat to its destination. 

The ferryman is a representation of Time—a representation that is sometimes depicted as an older man with wings—but he could also be Charon, the man whose job it was to ferry the dead across the rivers Styx and Acheron into the underworld. 

Either way, the depiction is a clear one: Love dies.

Love Dies in Time
“Love Dies in Time,” 1878, by Édouard Bernard Debat-Ponsan. Oil on canvas, 45 inches by 57.5 inches. Minneapolis Institute of Art. (Public Domain)

Toward an Ideal Love

A specific type of love dying is referenced here: It is a love of passion that dies. The presence of Cupid (or Eros) alludes to the type of love addressed. 

In Greek mythology, Cupid began as a primal, attractive force that was influential in creating the cosmos. Later, however, Cupid devolved into a lesser god who was commanded and manipulated by the gods and goddesses to alter the fate of both heaven and earth by making both the gods and humans uncontrollably and passionately infatuated with someone or something.

Here, the young man expresses his passion for the lifeless young woman—that is, for Love itself. He wants the passion that Cupid’s love represents to continue, but it has died. 

The depiction of the young man here is interesting to me. He does not look at the lifeless woman at all. He doesn’t even seem aware of her; she is left holding her own hand. He is more concerned with the ferryman. The young man tries to stop the hand of the ferryman; it looks as if they’re almost holding hands. His other hand is grabbing the ferryman’s arm.

I think this is interesting because his passion is more concerned about the continued experience of pleasurable emotion than with the well-being of the woman toward whom his passion is directed.

And this is what our term “love” has devolved to mean. For instance, two who engage in a passionate love affair are often uninterested in the well-being of the other person—no matter how much they try to convince themselves that they are—but are instead interested in the pleasurable emotion that they believe the other person is providing for them, a pleasurable emotion that, if absent, would mean the end of the love affair. 

In other words, what is often called “love” is a self-centered, self-serving desire for continued passion; it is to use another human being as a means, an object, to an end in satisfying our own pleasure. 

I believe the same thing is happening here with the young man. He is not interested in the person who provides the intense and pleasurable emotion and passion, but just that the pleasure continues.

And this is why the young man pleads with the ferryman. The ferryman represents the end of the passion. It’s inconsequential whether the ferryman is a representation of Time or Charon since both represent the end, the death of Love.

Passionate love, being emotional and ephemeral, is unable to stand the test of time and will always die. It’s simply its nature as an emotion to do so. We can’t maintain emotional states forever, and when we try, we cause ourselves the same type of anguish that the young man causes himself.

What would it mean for us today to leave behind the woes of passionate love and contemplate again Ideal Love that can stand the test of time, that doesn’t die with waning passion? How might we stimulate a broader, cultural development in these matters that, at one point or another, affect us all?

Art has an incredible ability to point to what can’t be seen so that we may ask “What does this mean for me and for everyone who sees it?” “How has it influenced the past and how might it influence the future?” “What does it suggest about the human experience?” These are some of the questions I explore in my series “Reaching Within: What Traditional Art Offers the Heart.”

Eric Bess is a practicing representational artist and is a doctoral candidate at the Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts (IDSVA).