I wanted a list of the greatest love stories in movies, stage and art. About half of these are going to be movies, because we live in a movie culture and I started this as a resource of love stories in the movies. After a while, I decided to list some of the greatest love stories in other art forms, so I added novels, plays, poetry and the “plastic arts”: painting and scultpture.
My apologies for whatever glaring omissions I’ve made, but I hope some of the readers of this blog will fill in the gaps by posting their favorite love stories. Besides, anyone encoutering this great love story list will find a hours and hours of entertainment and romance from what’s included.
I haven’t included just happy love stories, either, so watch out if you only like romantic stories with happy endings. Most of the places where something awful happens, I’ve given a hint or spoiler.
Greatest Love Stories – Black and White Movies (13)
The greatest love stories from classic movies. We have most of the big names included on this list: Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn, Audrey Hepburn, Humprey Bogart, Spencer Tracy, Greta Garbo, Rudolph Valentino: and the list goes on and on. Some of these are so often mentioned they’ve become cliched favorite love stories, but I’ve tried to include a few you won’t see mentioned everywhere.
1. The Sheik – Rudolph Valentino – Rudolf Valentino was the original leading man. They say women would faint when he would come onscreen. You don’t get that reaction from the girls watching Twilight (at least I hope not).
2. It Happened One Night (1934) – One of those escapist tales from the Depression, with Claudette Colbert as an innocent heiress on a cross country trip and Clark Gable as the reporter helping her on her flight (for a story, of course). One of only three movies to win all five major Oscars: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Screenplay.
3. Casablanca (1940) – Alright, it’s cliched to put this on a list of love stories, but I don’t want to hear about it for not putting Casablanca on the list. And yes, it wouldn’t have been nearly as meaningful if she hadn’t have gotten on the plane.
4. Adam’s Rib (1947) – Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn in their finest love pairing. Tracy and Hepburn play a pair of battling lawyers who get together while contesting a murder case.
5. Rebecca (1940) – Alfred Hitchcock’s American film directorial debut, involving a young bride and her husband, who seems haunted by the tragic marriage (and seeming death) of his first wife, Rebecca.
6. Sabrina (1954) – The unlikely love pairing of Humphrey Bogart and Audrey Hepburn. William Holden plays the role of the ne’er do-well, playboy brother to a tee. For those who love Cinderella tales, it doesn’t get any better than this.
7. Roman Holiday (1953) – It sure seems a lot of these love stories are class tales. This one involves an Italian princess and the American journalist willing to mislead her to get a lucrative scoop. Audrey Hepburn gets to play a classically whimsical role, while Gregory Peck gets to use one of Hollywood’s best voices ever to woo the lady.
8. The Philadelphia Story (1940) – Man, this movie has Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart and Katherine Hepburn. It would be physically impossible to make a bad movie with a cast like that, and this is a romance movie on top of all that.
9. A Guy Named Joe (1943) – Spencer Tracy and Irene Dunne star in this movie that was eventually remade into the 1989 Richard Dreyfus film, Always. Spencer Tracy is the ace fighter pilot who’s about to become an instructor, when a crash puts his romance on hold. Love conquers all, even death, though.
10. Sullivan’s Travels (1941) – This one is a little more obscure, but it’s a great romantic tale based on Gulliver’s Travels (loosely). A Hollywood director gets bored and goes on a road trip as a hobo, eventually falling in love with the beautiful Veronica Lake, known only as “The Girl”. Check this one out if you’ve never seen it. Let me repeat, Veronica Lake is gorgeous in this film.
11. Camille (1936) – You have to have Greta Garbo at least once on a list like this. Garbo starts out poor in life, but quickly becomes Dame Camille and the talk of Paris, living off a French baron. But when she falls in love with another man, her pampered life suddenly gets complicated. That’s when the omnipresent tuberculosis hits, not for the last time on our 101 Great Love Stories list.
12. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) – Okay, everyone thinks of this as a Christmas movie, but it’s also the life story of a romance. It’s a Wonderful Life actually came in at #8 on AFI’s list of 100 Best Romance Movies, so it qualifies. “George lassos the Moon…”
13. His Girl Friday (1940) – Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell play a pair of aggressive reporters and ex-spouses. When Russell is about to leave the business to marry a stuff-shirt (played by Ralph Bellamy), Cary Grant begins using desperate measures to keep his ex-wife around.
Greatest Love Stories – Color Movies (14)
These love stories on film cover a time period ranging 55 years, so you’ll get a mixed bag. Some are tragic love stories, while other deliver with the big finish. This may well be the most eclectic sub-list on our big list of romantic love stories. Some of my favorite movies are found on here.
Darn it, I didn’t include Titanic on this list (I think it’s a 20th century movie). I know it made the most money ever, but I just never could into the Titanic movie. It seemed like for years, Kate Winslet played role-after-role where she was whiny and self-righteous, and this was one of those roles. I like Leonardo Dicaprio, but I just couldn’t make it through this movie, though I did like Billy Zane as the weasely fiance with the gun.
14. An Affair to Remember (1957) – Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr star as two lovers who have a brief love affair on a ship. To test whether it’s true love, they decide to meet six months later on the Empire State Building to see if they still feel the same way. Tragedy strikes at this contrived plot, which nevertheless continues to influence movie makers to this day (like the makers of the following movie).
15. Sleepless in Seattle (1993) – Tom Hanks plays the recently widowed man who moves to Seattle to get away from the memories of his shattered life in Chicago. Meg Ryan plays an engaged columnist from Baltimore who hears Hanks on the radio one night talking about his wife’s death. Hanks’ son takes a shine to Meg’s letter, which is one of thousands of responses to the broadcast, and nudges them along to their fateful meeting on the Empire State Building – a la An Affair To Remember.
16. Annie Hall (1977) – Woody Allen’s best movie and one of the most experimental, given that he breaks the fourth wall on several occasions. I should have added more Woody Allen movies to this list, but once you start, you can’t stop. Won four Oscars telling this story of a perfect couple who grows apart.
17. The Quiet Man (1952) – A feel good story if there ever was one. Strange, since the premise is about an Irish-American boxer who kills a man in the ring and moves back to the family ancestral village to get away from his past. He meets the quintessential fiery Irish beauty in Maureen O’Hara and has one of the longest fistfights in movie history with her bullying brother. Said to have been John Ford’s dream project, and one he struggled for years to get on screen.
18. Rebel Without a Cause (1955) – James Dean and Natalie Wood in a love story: that just about says it all. James Dean plays the new kid in town, who fights the local bullies, meet a girl and wins her heart despite the parents’ disapproval. We also get to see James Dean in a car scene, the famous game of chicken. Natalie Wood is hot, hot, hot on the screen.
19. Splendor in the Grass (1961) – Elia Kazan directed this film of sexual repression and love that just never had a chance. Warren Beatty and Natalie Wood (again) play the doomed couple, who are kept apart by (surprise, surprise) social status. He’s the rich boy in town, and she’s not. Did I mention that Natalie Wood was gorgeous?
20. Gone With the Wind (1939) – This sweeping Civil War epic is a part of the American culture. Given that the Civil War is the defining moment in American history, it has to be that way. Gone With The Wind would be the highest-grossing American movie ever, if 1939 dollars were adjusted for inflation.
21. Pride & Prejudice (1995) – This is doubling up, but my mom would kill me if I didn’t put this on the list. The 5-hour A&E/BBC version of Pride & Prejudice with Colin Firth is her favorite movie…ever. The movie that made the wooden Colin Firth one of the most beloved leading men of the past generation, because he was perfectly cast in the role of the uber-reserved Mr. Darcy.
22. Doctor Zhivago (1965) – A romance set against the backdrop of the Russian Revolution, about a police general trying to find his brother’s (the title character’s) lovechild years after. Julie Christie plays the beautiful, yet tragic, Lara, while Omar Sharif as Dr. Zhivago. The movie raked in the box office, but got an avalanche of criticism from the reviewers. You decide whether this deserves to be considered a great romance.
23. Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994) – This is one of my favorite romantic comedies, because so many of the characters are so lovable. The one problem I had with this movie was the role of the lovely Andie McDowell. Hugh Grant is supposed to find her American vivacity enthralling, but most of the British characters have better personalities and are frankly livelier than she is. That aside, this is a first-rate romantic comedy.
24. The African Queen (1952) – The African Queen certainly doesn’t have the look of a romance, given that Humphrey Bogart looks dirty, sweaty and unshaven the entire movie. But Katherine Hepburn and Bogie combine for a mature romance about two mature people, set along an African river. Strange ending, but a good ending.
25. When Harry Met Sally (1989) – Back when Meg Ryan was America’s sweetheart and Billy Crystal was considered a leading man. This movie explores love/hate relationships and whether it’s better for friends to remain “just friends”. A New York movie about New Yorkers, but then, I guess most of them are.
26. Romeo & Juliet (1968) – We have to put a film representation of Romeo & Juliet on this list and this movie edges out the 1996 Romeo + Juliet movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Daines, if only because Daines isn’t as much of a beauty as Olivia Hussey in my eyes. That being said, go old school or new school, but Romeo & Juliet has to be included on the list of great romance movies.
27. Edward Scissorhands (1990) – Back when Winona Ryder was every schoolboy’s dream girl and Tim Burton’s dark and whimsical fantasies were cliche. Johnny Depp plays an ultimate outsider in love as a boy with scissors for hands. Any awkward teen can identify with Edward Scissorhands, and only hope they meet a Winona Ryder type to make their teen years a little less excruciating.
Greatest Love Stories – Animated Movies (10)
You wouldn’t think that kids movies would have so many love stories in them, but I think Disney and their competitors have always wanted to make animated movies that the moms are going to enjoy, too. So many of the love stories on this list have become a huge part of American pop culture, adapted and borrowed from for all kinds of subsequent books and movies. Of course, a good number of these stories come out of European faerie tales.
28. The Lady and The Tramp (1955) – The tramp comes from the wrong side of the tracks, but his more well-groomed ladyfriend doesn’t seem to mind. Just about everyone’s favorite animated love story.
29. Beauty and the Beast (1991) – This one has been played out in any number of live-action versions, but those can run towards the creepy. This animated film, part of the Disney Animated Renaissance, really plays up magic to give up the happy ending. We get the equivalent of the frog turning into the prince at the end, complete with a resurrection scene.
30. Snow White & the Seven Dwarves (1937) – This movie joins Fantasia as one of only two old-style animated films on AFI’s List of the 100 Greatest American Films. They just don’t them like this anymore. Like Cinderella, we have a beautiful young lady, an evil step-mother (and queen) and the prince who will marry her.
31. Cinderella (1950) – These classic Disney films are still hard to beat for the magic and romance they combine. This story of the “cinder girl”, her evil step-family and the prince who rescues her is timeless.
32. The Lion King (1994) – Story about an exiled lion prince and his struggle to unseat the evil uncle who stole his father’s throne. Loosely based on Hamlet, but with lots of good musical numbers and that trademark Disney ending. Simba and Nala are the love interests.
33. WALL-E (2008) – What happens when an obsolete robot meets an advanced female robot? Well, he falls in love. This animated film is very different than what you might expect, because so much of the story is carried not by the dialogue (there isn’t a whole lot), but by the actions of the robots and their friends.
34. The Little Mermaid (1989) – This time, the princess meets a more worldly-seeming prince, Eric, who is both a royal figure and an accomplished sailor. The main antagonist also has a change of heart, eventually helping Ariel and Eric get together. The Little Mermaid helped spark a new interest in Disney animated movies, which had been waning for a decade or so.
35. Anastasia (1997) – Fanciful tale of the real life Princess Anastasia, based on the 1955 live-action movie which played on legends that Princess Anya actually survived her death at the hands of the Bolsheviks. In the animated film, we get to see Anastasia have her faerie tale romance and kill Rasputin while doing so. Even the cowardly bat hooks up with a female bat in the end.
36. Sleeping Beauty (1959) – The slightly lesser known of the three Walt Disney faerie tale movies about a beautiful girl and her prince rescuer (along with Snow White and Cinderella), Sleeping Beauty still remains a centerpiece of Disney Lore, perhaps because it was filmed when Disney was building the Disneyland theme park.
37. Mulan II (2005) – A sequel to the popular 1997 Mulan. For those who expected to see a high romance from the original story of a cross-dressing Chinese girl who wants respect as a warrior, the sequel delivers on the promise of a happily-ever-after romance. Of course, Mulan I was a better film for exactly the reasons described before, but you get to see a beloved character finally live happily ever after.
Greatest Love Stories – 21st Century Movies (9)
Okay, I didn’t include quite as many of these as on the other lists, simply because it’s from a shorter time frame and shouldn’t have so many worthy entries. I included one or two love stories than some of you artistic purists are going to sneer at anyway.
There are a few that you would expect on here that I didn’t include, such as Bridget Jones’ Diary. For some reason, Bridget Jones just didn’t do it for me. Maybe the characters were a little too mundane. Maybe it’s because they had to get an American to play Bridget Jones, which makes no sense. Add to it that the American isn’t that attractive to me (Hollywood attractive, not “walking down the street” attractive, that is) and I was just underwhelmed.
38. Love Actually (2003) – Guys, this is a romantic comedy that you don’t have to feel embarrassed watching with your girlfriend. A great ensemble cast including Bill Nighy and Alan Rickman, as well as those women-pleasers like Hugh Grant and Colin Firth.
39. Amelie (2001) – This French movie starring Audrey Tautou is the story of a 20-something beauty home schooled by parents, and therefore never learning to connect with people. One day, she finds a toybox from the 50’s in her apartment and decides to give it back to its original owner. This leads her to begin bettering peoples’ lives in similar fashion, and eventually leads her to love. Add in a lot of romantic French accordian music and you have a great love story for misfits everywhere.
40. The Notebook (2004) – It would be hard to write a list of “great love stories” these days without a reference to a Nicholas Sparks book, or in this case a movie based on a Nicholas Sparks book. I’ve never read one of his books, so the ladies will have to forgive me for not including him on my great novel love stories list. Also wrote “A Walk to Remember” and “Message in a Bottle”.
41. A Walk To Remember (2002) – Based on the 1999 novel by Nicholas Sparks, this movie features the beautiful Mandy Moore, a favorite of mine (I’ll admit, mainly for her beauty and not her acting; sue me). Story of the quiet pastor’s daughter and her romance with the local rebellious boy, played by Shane West.
42. Twilight (2008) – Yes, I just want to offend everyone by putting this movie on the list of greatest love stories: those who hate the film and can’t believe it’s on a greatest list, and the teens and tweens who get mad when I then call Twilight overblown frippery. Yes, I just called your precious Twilight overblown frippery.
43. Juno (2007) – It helps when a romantic comedy is actually funny and you like the main characters. Juno won the Oscar for Best Screenplay – which is the award they often give to the best movie when the actors and director haven’t payed their yet – and was nominated for three other Oscars. If you like snappy dialogue with your love stories, you’ll probably like Juno.
44. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) – Alright, I’m ready to make up with Kate Winslet now. It takes a lot for me to place a Jim Carrey movie on a greatest love stories list, but Eternal Sunshine… told a great love story. Like the next movie on the list, I was very unconvinced when I walked into this movie, but I bought the premise and it worked.
45. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008) – Another of these where I would be shunned, this time by my sister, if I left it off the list. I have to admit, I walked into this movie thinking, “Contrived Premise”, but I walked out thinking it was a top notch movie. I like period pieces, though.
Greatest Love Stories – Musicals on Film – Broadway Musicals (12)
You might as well say these are the best love stories from Broadway, because I’m pretty sure every one of these musicals were first a broadway play – except for Singing in the Rain and Gigi. I mainly spoke of the movies, since that’s what I’m familiar with, and not the original production of these Broadway play love stories.
I’m sure I’ve placed a musical or two on the other film lists, but that’s pure oversight while making out a (relatively) quick list.
46. The King and I (1956) – Russian-born Yul Brynner and the alluring Deborah Kerr star in another Cinderella tale, this one involving the King of Siam in the 1800’s and an English tutor working among the locals.
47. My Fair Lady (1962) – Boy, Audrey Hepburn sure was in a bunch of romantic comedies. And boy howdy, are there a lot of these love stories about “opposites attract” and lovers from two different worlds. I guess there’s something timeless about two polar opposites coming together in mutual attraction.
48. Singing in the Rain (1952) – This is one that I think holds up well over the years, probably because it references the pop culture (of that time) so much and because Singin’ in the Rain includes no-talent (or little-talent stars), lip synching scandals and how technology changes the entertainment industry – all subjects of our time. Plus, there’s lots of good singing and dancing.
49. The Phantom of the Opera – This 2004 adaption of the Andrew Lloyd Weber musical got mixed reviews and had a big payday. Yes, that’s Gerard Butler of “300” fame singing his heart out. “Sparta!” Actually, I’m pretty sure he never says the word sparta in The Phantom of the Opera, but he should have. On a side note, I would like to have seen this performed by Michael Crawford and Sarah Brightman, as Andrew Lloyd Weber said he intended to do 15 years before.
50. Kiss Me Kate (1953) – Adapted from a Broadway play and involving an musical about a Shakespearean play: Taming of the Shrew. Kiss Me Kate offers a much-used Shakespeare tactic, the play-within-a-play (Hamlet, A Midsummer’s Night Dream, Love’s Labour’s Lost), since the two leading characters are starring as Kate and Petruchio in a Broadway production of Taming of the Shrew.
51. Gigi (1958) – One of those worldly European tales softened for an American audience, Gigi is a young girl sent to be educated as a courtesan, who falls in love with a bored bon vivant of wealth and status. When he proposes her becoming his mistress, she refuses. Their reception at a later social event changes his heart, and just as Gigi’s ready to consent to the arrangement, Gaston proposes marriage. Happy ending.
52. Seven Brides For Seven Brothers (1954) – Yet another European story developed for American tastes. The story of seven mountain men brothers who kidnap wives and are snowed in for the winter, based on “The Rape of the Sabine Women” from Roman times. This one’s played for laughs, though, and the mountain men are tamed by their seven brides.
53. South Pacific (1949) – A movie and musical inspired by their times, when Americans were beginning to engage the Pacific and Asian cultures at an unprecedented level. Story of multicultural romance and racial prejudice set to the musical numbers of Rogers & Hammerstein.
54. Oklahoma! (1955) – A 1943 Rogers & Hammerstein musical turned into a 50’s movie. This one has been watched over and over, and played over and over in student productions. I remember Oklahoma! was my brothers’ Senior Play. Awful performances by lots of good friends. Good times.
55. The Sound of Music (1965) – The final Rogers & Hammerstein collaboration and the one with the most familiar songs. Story of the Von Trapp Family, who sing their way across Austria during the run-up to World War II. Story of a free-spirited governness and her romance with “the Captain” – the father of the Von Trapp children. Will they escape the Nazis?
56. State Fair (1945) – Pure Americana, about a fictional family’s trip to their state fair. The father wants his pig to win a prize. The mother wants her mincemeat to defeat her rival’s mincemeat, and does so when everyone in the family decides to surreptitiiously spike the mincemeat. Of course, the younger generation are there for love. The only movie Rogers & Hammerstein actually directly wrote for (instead of just the play version). Remade in 1962 with Pat Boone, Bobby Darin and Ann-Margret.
57. West Side Story (1961) – Natalie Wood in all her glory in this story about two rival gangs on the West Side and it’s an adaptation of a Broadway play of the same name. The play was based on Romeo & Juliet, replacing two warring families with the gangs. Natalie Wood had her singing parts overdubbed for the movie, I believe.
Greatest Love Stories on Stage (11)
58. Romeo & Juliet – William Shakespeare – The classic story of two star-crossed lovers. This has been turned into operas and ballets and movies, and converted into every art form you can imagine. This one should be a classic for all time.
59. The Taming of the Shrew – William Shakespeare – Shakespeare’s lighthearted take on love and romance. This play is one of those that’s been adapted to virtually every genre of culture and still pops up in our pop culture, from the Moonlighting episode to a loose movie adaption like “10 Things I Hate About You”. Due to custom, Bianca can’t be married until her older sister, Kate, is married. But Kate runs off all the men in her life with her shrewishness. Enter Petruchio, who knows how to win the heart of the beautiful yet high-spirited Katherina.
60. Antony & Cleopatra – William Shakespeare – This is a highly underrated love story, if you want to read a love story involving two of literature’s biggest egos. Harold Bloom points out how Shakespeare casts Antony as the final icon of the age of heroes, the last cowboy. Cleopatra, on the other hand, has a scene where she demands her lover stop speaking, so he can hear her wax poetic. Brilliant stuff.
61. A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Felix Mendelssohn & William Shakespeare – Obviously, William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream was performed for 200 years before Mendelssohn came along, but I wanted to add a mention to Mendelssohn’s first rate musical accompaniment, which comprised an overture and incidental music. One piece of incidental music is played at virtually every wedding in the United States these days.
62. A Streetcar Named Desire (1947) – This Broadway play is as much a culture clash as a love clash, and pits two characters, Blanche Dubois, the fading Southern socialite and her brother-in-law, Stanley Kowalski, the rising industrial working class “hero”, against one another. The love affair between Stanley and Stella, Blanche’s sister, is as much about sexual chemistry as anything romantic, but it tells us a lot about the sexual nature of love, as well. This is a primal performance by Marlon Brando, both in the play and the film versions. This is a problematic love story, but many on the stage list are.
63. Pygmalion – George Bernard Shaw – This play from 1912 would go on to be adapted into My Fair Lady for the screen. The story of unpolished, cockney Eliza Doolittle getting etiquette lessons in order to become a lady. Loosely inspired by the Greek story of Pygmalion and Galatea.
64. The Barber of Seville – Giacomo Puccini – The Count falls in love with a woman at first, but he is afraid she will love him for his money and not for himself. So he takes a disguise to get close to her, but she is locked up by the doctor she acts as servant for, and he cannot see her. Instead, the Count finds an old servant, Figaro, who now works as a barber. Because of his job, Figaro has access to the doctor’s house, and goes through all kinds of troubles so the two lovers can come together and marry.
65. La Boheme – Giacomo Puccini – The story of Mimi and Rodolfo, a love at first sight that turns tragic when the seamstress becomes mortally ill. Rodolfo, who wanted to leave Mimi because she was too flirtatious, rushes to meet his dying lover. This is the second most staged Puccini opera, next to the next entry.
66. Madama Butterfly – Giacomo Puccini – A story of a cross-cultural love affair when such things were exotic and illicit, around the turn of the 20th Century. Cio-Cio San is a woman living in Nagasaki, who marries Pinkerton. Pinkerton doesn’t take the marriage seriously, and runs off to America to marry an American woman. Cio-Cio San commits suicide with her father’s knife, as Pinkerton returns to see the damage he has wrought (and the son he fathered).
67. La Traviata – Guiseppe Verdi – Another of those great Italian opera’s where lovers get together, have a misunderstanding and reconcile too late (usually when the woman dies of convenient disease). Violette is a Parisian courtesan wanting to settle down, but her lover thinks she wants to spend all night in the salons with her new baronial lover. This leads to an accusation, a broken heart, a lie about the so-called fallen woman’s affection, a duel and a reconciliation too late. You know, the usual.
68. Carmen – Georges Bizet – Carmen, a gypsy, hardly ever seems to be in love with Don Jose, and she leads him to career suicide and murder when he discovers that she’s in love with a bullfighter. But the music in this opera is so excellent that I would recommend anyone seeing a handful of operas in their life should take in this brutal love story.
Great Love Stories in Poetry (9)
Alright, I know that many of the plays above are written in poetic verse, but I’m defining this as poetry not normally used for theatrical purposes. We’re talking the old-fashioned love poem. I’m going old school on a number of these, so bear with me. I’ll try not to go overboard.
While there is a lot of great love poetry out there, a whole lot of it the love poems are short, and contain only bits and pieces of a love story. I’ve tried to focus on the love poetry of a longer form or that truly spells out a narrative of some sort. I nearly included Venus & Adonis from William Shakespeare, but that long poem often makes me laugh more than think of romance – just the picture of the goddess of love who can’t convince her man to make love to her.
69. The Divine Comedy – Dante Alighieri – While theologists would take some theology from this and historians will point out the political satire in whom Dante places in Hell, we forget that at the heart of this morbid tale, Dante is telling the story of a reunion with his beloved Beatrice. In writing his poetry, Dante also founded modern Italian, one of the most romantic languages in the world.
70. The Laura Sonnets – Petrarch – Petrarch started the sonnet as a form of poetry and Laura was the standard by which all future love sonnets would be compared. We forget these men (Petrarch, Boccacio, Chaucer) and their contemporaries in the other arts lived through the Black Plague, and their answer was to launch the Renaissance. These men are simply an amazing testament to the human spirit.
71. Troilus and Criseyde – Geoffrey Chaucer – Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales are more famous, but many scholars believe this to be Geoffrey Chaucer’s greatest work. This long poem tells the story of a love affair set during the Trojan War and has been copied many times, most famously by William Shakespeare in his dark (comedy?) Troilus and Cressida.
72. The Lady of Shalott – Alfred Lord Tennyson – This tale of unrequited love is quoted often, and it inspired several iconic Pre-Raphaelite paintings. The Lady of Shelott has one of the great dust-offs in history, as he says when her dead body arrives: “But Lancelot mused a little space/He said, ‘She has a lovely face.'” That’s cold, Lancelot.
73. Shakespeare’s Sonnets – William Shakespeare – We’re not sure exactly who Shakespeare is in love with – man or woman – but, if the bulk of the critics are right, he may well be involved in one of the craziest love triangles of all time: Will, the Lovely Youth and the Dark Lady falling in and out of love.
74. Astrophel and Stella – Sir Philip Sidney – The great English war hero penned a story about a love affair before he died, which may have hinted at his courtly romance to the real life Penelope Rich, wife of a courtier and sister of the famous/infamous Earl of Essex. Penelope was a bit of a character. She had four illegitimate children and later married another man without a license after her divorce, and for doing so, was ostracized from court.
75. Twenty Love Poems and a Desperate Song – Pablo Neruda – If you want to see what a great poet writes when he’s 19 years old and living in 1920’s Paris, read Naruda’s Twenty Poems. They’re exactly the kind of over-the-top eroticism you would expect from a teenage latin lover.
76. Sonnets from the Portuguese – Elizabeth Barrett Browning – 44 love sonnets from 1846, largely detailing the love affair between the poet and her future husband, Robert Browning. Popular in those days and probably more popular now, because Elizabeth Barrett Browning was in many ways a proto-feminist. Sonnet #43 begins with the famous line: “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.”
77. Don Juan – Lord Byron – Based on the legends of the great seducer, Don Juan, Lord Byron turns the tale on its ear and makes Don Juan easily seduced by women. This may not be entirely about love, but lovers will want to read the exploits of Byron’s Don Juan. Considered his masterpiece by modern critics.
Greatest Love Stories in Novels (14)
Boy, these are all over the place. I’m sure a lot of romantics would prefer I select a few more love stories with happy endings, but there are some of the enduring love stories from classic literature (at least a whole lot of it is). That’s probably why Jane Austen is so popoular these days: a great writer who actually wrote great happy endings. Most of the rest involve a divorce, death or suicide.
78. Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy – A 2007 poll had Anna Karenina (sometimes translated as Anna Karenin) as the greatest novel ever written. Given there’s a little novel by Tolstoy called “War and Peace”, it’s hard to give it top spot, but writers from Dostoyevsky to Nabokov have declared Anna Karenina as a flawless masterpiece. A warning: those of you who enjoy the happy country love affairs of the 19th century English might not be so pleased with how the love affairs of 19th century Russians end.
79. Pride & Prejudice – Jane Austen – One of the classic love stories, retold and reimagined so many times in recent years that we lost count a long time ago. A witty woman sets her mind against a proud man who offends her, assuming that his enemy is therefore a good man. Meanwhile, the rich English gentleman assumes everyone in a small community is unworthy of his attention, until his attention picks out a particularly pretty and witty girl who seems bent on giving him attitude. It takes several hundred pages for Elizabeth to realise that first impressions are not always correct impressions.
80. Sense & Sensibility – Jane Austen – The double love story, involving an older, more mature sister and her more mature approach to love and a younger, more impassioned sister and her realization that deep emotions are often shown through actions and not words. You get two love stories for the price of one. After reading the Jane Austen novels, I realized the first 95% of the novels are based in melancholy (mixed with a human and satire), but the last 5% have the big, joyous payoff, but not before both character’s flaws allow Darcy’s arch-enemy to play the cad one more time.
81. Persuasion – Jane Austen – The story of a woman of high birth who takes the advice of family and friends to refuse the offer of marriage of the man she loves, but who is of lower social status. Years later, he returns as a rich and decorated naval officer, while she is older and less lovely and her family has fallen on hard times, mainly due to the extravagence of her snooty father and sister. A story of regret and redemption told the Jane Austen way.
82. Ivanhoe – Sir Walter Scott – This one’s for the guys who like plenty of fighting and war in their love stories. Ivanhoe is a contemporary of Robin Hood, returning from the 3rd Crusade to find a world of trouble. His love interest is a Jewish woman, while a whole cast of characters fill up the action of the novel. Robin Hood makes an appearance, too.
83. Great Expectations – Charles Dickens – One of Dickens’ best and most mature novels, meaning that people looking for a clean romance tale will probably be disappointed. Pip loves Estella, but he’s too low in social status for her attentions. A lifetime of disappointed expectations (and lots of non-romantic storylines) lead to an open-ended ending to the Pip-Estella relationship. An absolutely fantastic novel, though.
84. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte – The only novel by Emily Bronte, dismissed for a long time, but consistently invited adaptations to film and tv. This is one of those classics of the romantic period, when a good romance is best consummated in matching graves.
85. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte – Penned by Emily’s sister, Charlotte, this is considered by many to be the finest novel by the Bronte Sisters, but is a little too bleak for my tastes. Once again, a romantic tale where death and despair seem omnipresent, though Mr. Rochester and Jane eventually reconcile in the end, sans an eye or two and a palatial mansion that’s smoldering in the distance. Read “Wild Sargasso Sea” by Jean Rhys if you want a prequel about Mr. Rochester’s marriage to the crazy woman in the attic, giving that character a much more symphathetic portrayal.
86. The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand – A love triangle between Roark, the visionary architect; Wynand, the newspaper publisher who is Roark’s sometime patron; and Dominique, the woman who loves one man and marries the other. The 1943 novel comes full circle, and despite mixed reviews, sold well enough through word of mouth, that it was adapted into a 1949 Gary Cooper movie.
87. A Farewell To Arms – Ernest Hemingway – A romance set during the disastrous Italian Theater of World War I between the Austro-Hungarian and Italian forces, A Farewell To Arms is yet another Hemingway tale that offers semi-autobiographical accounts, as Hemingway was an volunteer ambulance driver in the same setting. Tragedy mixes with romance in this Hemingway classic.
88. The Sun Also Rises – Ernest Hemingway – Set in the romantic atmosphere of the 1920’s Europe of France and Spain, the story of expatriate Americans living on the continent and falling in love and lust. The center of the story is Jake, a WWI vet left impotent from a war injury and the promiscuous women he (and virtually every other man in the novel) loves. The Sun Also Rises is a great novel if you want some sense of what Europe in the interwar period was like for young Americans.
89. The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald – Some wouldn’t include this novel, given that the love that Gatsby and Daisy shared turns out to be so vacuous – at least on her part. But this is one of the great American novels, told in that seemingly effortless fashion by Fitzgerald and his narrator, Nick Carraway. But I’m one of those who still prefers reading Fitzgerald to Hemingway, so I guess I would put Gatsby on this list.
90. Tender Is the Night – F. Scott Fitzgerald – We see another troubled marriage between rich American. This one involves a psychiatrist and his patient, who is also an heiress. “Tender Is the Night” studies the evolution of a marriage and a romantic relationship, as well as the altered politics of marriage as two individuals change throughout the time line of a marriage. Fitzgerald’s terrific prose will be you enthralled, whether you identify with a couple living in the south of France or not.
91. A Town Like Alice – Nevil Shute – Considered one of the great Australian romance novels and famously adapted for television back in the 1980’s for PBS. A Town Like Alice is a story of the war years in Australia, and is one of those epic romance stories that’s full of non-romantic depictions of the harshness of the Australian outback. You get a decent payoff at the end, after all the trials and tribulations of war internment and struggling to make a go of things in the wilderness, though.
Greatest Love Stories – Painting & Sculpture (10)
These are so underrepresented on here that I feel embarrassed only putting ten on here. I’ve tried to avoid too many paintings or scultpures that depict other stories we’ve seen on the list. Otherwise, I’ve tried to select great arts where you can just sense the emotions of the characters or no just from the looks on their faces exactly what they are thinking. Maybe I’ll make a list of the 101 Greatest Love Stories in Painting and Sculpture sometime, but that’s probably going to be a long time from now.
92. The Kiss – Gustav Klimt – Two lovers in a passionate kiss, modernist Klimt style. This is one of the classic depictions of a lovers embrace in painting in the past 200 years, so vivid and full of rapture.
93. The Garden of Earthly Delights – Hieronymous Bosch – This piece, painted probably in the very early 16th century, is full of scores of men and women engaged in various sexual activity in the centerpiece, with a depiction of God presenting Eve to Adam on the right. On the left is the Last Judgment. One crazy looking picture for a painting 500 years ago, showing the frenzy of life.
94. Psyche’s Rapture – William Bouguereau – This late 19th century painting, depicts Eros sweeping Psyche up in his arms and flying into the sky. The look on Psyche’s face, as she clutches her naked breast, is one of unbridled joy and ecstasy. The story of Cupid and Psyche has been depicted in art too many times to count.
95. The Springtime – Pierre Auguste Cot – Two lovers sit on a swing together in a forest or jungle somewhere. The man is looking away from the painter, towards his love. She stares at her lover with a look of sly coyness, and the light falls on her otherwise girlish face, making her the center of the piece. Just excellent storytelling in a painting.
96. The Kiss – Rodin – A depiction of the tale of Francesca de Rimini, most famous for her depiction in Dante’s Inferno as the women who fell in love with her husband’s brother while reading about Lancelot and Guinevere. The sculpture does not show the lovers’ lips touching, indicating they were interrupted by the husband, who kills them with his sword. Everyone has seen a picture of this sculpture.
97. Pygmalion and Galeta – Jean-Leon Gerome – There are two lovely paintings by Gerome, depicting the moment that Galatea comes to life and kisses the man who has fallen in love with her. This is the story of the sculptor who sculpts a beautiful woman, Galatea, who then comes to life. I suppose Galeta is a French version of the name.
98. The Painter’s Honeymoon – Lord Frederic Leighton – A painter on his honeymoon decides to either get some sketches in, or show his new bride how he performs his work. She is so enraptured with her husband and his artistic mastery, that she arches her heads over the painting in total concentration. With his free hand, the two hold hands.
99. Welcome Footsteps – Lawrence Alma-Tadema – A bearded man makes his way up stairs to see his lover, presumably after being parted for a time. Meanwhile, this lovely woman hears the footsteps on the stairs, and her whole bodies begins to lean towards the doorway, as if she’s about to look around to see her love.
100. The Lady of Shalott – John William Waterhouse – The despair on the face of the beautiful Lady of Shalott as she sets down the river on her boat is bewitching. She has three lighted candles and a crucifix of the Lord on her boat, leaving you in no doubt as to the kind of suffering she is in. Knowing the Lady will soon die of grief lets you know that we are fully in the Romantic Period.
101. “The First Kiss” or “Cupid & Psyche As Children” – William-Adolphe Bouguereau – Two child angels sit on a cloud, with young Cupid giving young Psyche a kiss on the cheek. Young Psyche has her eyes closed and you aren’t sure if she likes the kiss. Bouguereau was the most famous French painter of his day, the era of the Impressionists. His disdain for these artists have ruined Bouguereau’s reputation these days, but his skill is undoubted. Read The Judgment of Paris by Ross King for a great story of the decade the Impressionists gained fame. Bouguereau and Manet are the main figures in the book.