by A Kladov

In the vast array of human feelings, sorrow stands out as a prevalent emotion depicted in numerous well-known art pieces. Artists across generations have eloquently portrayed the exploration of sorrow and the varied life occurrences that evoke this sentiment. This piece delves into renowned sorrowful paintings in the history of art and examines the enduring impact they hold.

The Best 10 Well-Known Depictions of Sadness in Paintings

Sadness has been among the most popular subjects that famous painters have portrayed in their paintings since time immemorial. That has been one of the markers of great artists from the Renaissance through the 21st century.

The primary focus in art was not always centered on capturing the depths of human sentiment. It only gained prominence after the emergence of Expressionism, an influential art movement.

Many artists, both before and during this movement, decided to prioritize depicting the lives of ordinary people. 

Here, we'll take a closer look at the top 10 most famous sad paintings of all time, guaranteed to tug at your heartstrings.


Louis-Jean-François Lagrenée Engages in "La Mélancolie" (c. 1785)


"La Mélancolie" (1785) Louis-jean-françois Lagrene

Despite its age, La Mélancolie still stands out as an excellent piece of art that explores what happens within a melancholy state. It was created in 1785 by Louis-Jean-François Lagrenée, reflecting the Rococo style typical of that time.

Rocco is characterized by the fine details used to emphasize decorative features. The simplistic nature of La Mélancolie depicts a young girl dressed in a subtle, silky gown. She lays her head on an arm on her knee. It constitutes a universal type of melancholy. Through her body language, the woman gives a powerful statement, which makes her impact stronger because of the darker background of the canvas and her piercing and thoughtful gaze.


Peter Fendi Unveils "The Sad Message" (1838)

Peter Fendi "Sad Message"

"The Sad Message" (1838) Peter Fendi 

The Austrian painter Peter Fendi was associated with the Biedermeier era in art. This was the famed era wherein art became more accessible to people — especially to middle-class families. 

Ordinary and mundane life scenes gained traction among many artists. At that, the popularity of themes in art like sadness and deeper emotions within human society also skyrocketed. 

Nowadays, “The Sad Message” is still one of the most painful paintings ever created. It portrays a single woman carrying a baby and another child by her side. 

With a fallen letter on her lap and a soldier returning several items to the mother, it’s evident that she received a piece of heartbreaking news. One can see and empathize with the mother’s intense sorrow in the presence of her fatherless young children.


Paul Cézanne Evokes "La Douleur" (Sorrow) (1868 – 1869)

"La Douleur" (Sorrow) (1868 – 1869)

"La Douleur" (Sorrow) (1868 – 1869) 

One of the most famous artworks in the 19th century depicted the New Testament’s Mary Magdalene. This painting was called “La Douleur” or “The Sorrow” in many English translations. 

Originally crafted between 1868 and 1869, this masterpiece is considered among the most famous depictions of sorrow and grief in art. It features what Mary Magdalene must have felt upon hearing about Jesus’ demise. 

This artwork touched thousands — if not millions of hearts, as the grief and sorrow of losing someone you love through death is universal. Cézanne’s piece showcased that emotion masterfully and serves as a reminder today of how deep sorrow can be. 


Ivan Kramskoi Portrays "Inconsolable Grief" (1884)

van Kramskoy depicts “Inconsolable Grief” (1884).

Ivan Kramskoi Portrays "Inconsolable Grief" (1884)

Ivan Nikolaevich Kramskoi, a prominent figure among Russian artists and art critics during the Realism era, crafted "Inconsolable Grief," an oil painting in 1884. Kramskoi's daring depiction of religious figures with intricate moral and psychological themes sparked controversy and criticism.

The painting poignantly embodies Kramskoi's personal anguish following the tragic loss of his two young children within four years. With profound grief as his backdrop, Kramskoi portrayed his wife as the focal point, her face veiled by a handkerchief in mourning. 

Her eyes reflect deep weariness and darkness, portraying the profound turmoil of a grieving parent reeling from the loss of her children, still wrestling with disbelief.

This evocative artwork resonates deeply with individuals who have faced similar heartbreaking experiences, stirring emotions with its heartfelt portrayal.


Vincent van Gogh Gazes "At Eternity's Gate" (1890)

Vincent van Gogh Gazes "At Eternity's Gate" (1890)

Vincent Van Gogh Gazes "At Eternity's Gate" (1890)

Vincent van Gogh stood out among the artists of the 19th century for his exceptional ability to transform feelings of sadness and melancholy into evocative artworks that deeply resonate with people today. 

"At Eternity's Gate" stands as one of Van Gogh's most heartfelt paintings, showcasing a profound understanding of emotions through the physical reactions of the subject. 

In this artwork, it shows an old man sitting in a chair. He has his hands on his head, and he is crying because he knows his life will finish soon.

This picture is a real look at how people feel when they hear the hard news that someone is gone forever, and it shows how they look when they are really sad.


Edvard Munch Captures "Melancholy" (c. 1892)

Edvard Munch Captures "Melancholy" (c. 1892)

Edvard Munch Captures "Melancholy" (C. 1892)

Melancholy truly captures the image of the woman as she represents sadness. This work was first done as a pastel drawing in 1891, and several subsequent versions have been made.

The expressionist Edvard Munch was able to infuse such strong feelings as pain, regret, sadness, and fear into his artwork. The peculiar wavy brushstrokes and color combined were what helped him understand how one can express this sort of emotional state through spatial arrangement, facial expression, and color.

However, at first, the painting was called “Jappe on the Beach” because the artist’s friend, Nielssen Jappe, experienced unhealthy love-relationship troubles. This painting explored melancholy in Edvard Munch’s subject.

An interesting fact about Munch was that he got his ideas from Polish writer Stanislaw Przybyszewski, whom he studied with in Poland. The artist was heavily influenced by Przybyszewski’s book called, “Mass for the Dead.” Furthermore, Przybyszewski was also a model for Munch between 1893 and 1898.


Pablo Picasso Ponders "Femme Assise" (c. 1902 – 1903)

Pablo Picasso, the Spanish artist, is one of the 20th century's most renowned figures. Between 1902 and 1903, he created famously sorrowful art. His distinctive artistic approach set him apart from his predecessors, and he swiftly gained recognition as a pioneer in Cubism.

"Femme Assise" is one such artwork that not only ranks among the world's most famed melancholic paintings but also serves as a reflection of the artist's inner struggles with depression, trauma, and sorrow. 

The painting depicts a despondent woman who seems to slouch and rest her arm in a defeated posture. She exudes emotional detachment, gazing distantly at the cell wall.

Picasso sketched multiple images of women (prostitutes, to be exact) from St. Lazare women's prison while he was staying in Barcelona in 1902. These haunting scenes came about after his friend committed suicide.

Since then, the period has been referred to as Picasso’s “blue period”. In his work during that time, he included many hues ranging from different tones of blue.

It is speculated that the melancholic woman in the painting was both the late friend's lover and someone who drew Picasso's affection.

The choice of the color blue was frequently associated with darkness, evil, and death, making it a fitting choice for the somber atmosphere. The dual layers of symbolism within the artwork suggest the woman becomes captive to her own grief.


Pablo Picasso Expresses "The Old Guitarist" (1903 – 1904)

pablo picasso old guitarist

Pablo Picasso "The Old Guitarist" (1903 – 1904)

During Picasso's "blue era," he created "The Old Guitarist," one of the most renowned melancholic artworks in history. 

The painting conveys feelings of sorrow, distress, and sorrow, which are accentuated by Picasso's use of the azure color and the image of a guitarist playing in a defeated manner.

The character is considered a visually impaired musician, mirroring Picasso's battle to empathize with the suffering of the less fortunate.

In 1902, Picasso confronted financial troubles and endured a streak of financial misfortune. This period was intensified by the loss of his dear friend, Carlos Casagema, deepening the artist's experience of sorrow, ultimately leading to the creation of monochromatic azure artworks characteristic of Picasso's "Blue Period."


Frida Kahlo Weaves "The Wounded Deer" (1946)

Frida Kahlo "The Wounded Deer" (1946)

Frida Kahlo "The Wounded Deer" (1946)

This artwork showcases a deeply poignant artwork connected to the personal life of the celebrated Mexican painter Frida Kahlo. 

In 1946, Kahlo vividly portrayed her challenges and sorrows stemming from her tumultuous relationship with her on-and-off spouse, Diego Rivera.

The constant unpredictability in her relationship with Rivera exposed her to the extreme ups and downs of an unhealthy romantic partnership—and "The Wounded Deer" exemplifies this very facet. 

The melancholy and pain that served as the inspiration for this masterpiece were attributed to the infidelity in her relationship with Rivera. Plus, coupled with the physical agony she endured due to a severe accident she suffered in her youth, leaving her in perpetual discomfort. 

As stated by Kahlo in a 1951 conversation, she underwent "two serious accidents— one was the tram accident that struck her, and the other was Diego."


Andrew Wyeth Discovers "Christina's World" (1948)

Andrew Wyeth "Christina's World" (1948)

Andrew Wyeth "Christina's World" (1948)

Christina's World differs from the conventional portrayals of sorrow observed in the aforementioned melancholic artworks, but its context and subject matter render its non-traditional representation inherently melancholic.

One of the most influential artists from the 20th Century was Andrew Wyeth, who depicted the ordinary everyday life of the Americans. In his body of work, his paintings emphasize the meaning of "hard work" for many people in times of economic instability, when it was difficult to afford a living.

"Christina's World" centers on the life of a young girl paralyzed from the waist down, known to Wyeth. She appears to be lying in a field with a remote house in sight that she seems to be looking at. 

The soft and fading colors of the piece make it seem as though all life has been drained from the scene — this reflects the girl's feelings upon seeing herself reflected in the painting.

However, the artist's feelings towards the girl and her hardship are unclear. Yet, there is great compassion for her depicted in the image of the distant house with her outstretched arm. It evokes deep sympathy, as she should have been savoring her "vibrant" years.


To Bring It All Together

The masterpieces mentioned in this may or may not be the saddest artworks you’ll ever encounter in the world. But the visual portrayal of sadness, misery, and suffering in art doesn’t end here. 

You are free to explore various ways to express this emotion however you want. Indeed, for decades, artists have been painting this complex yet universal human emotion with their brushes onto canvasses — so, why not cherish it? How would you portray sorrow?