NEW YORK — The ♥️ symbol, as an ideograph for love, has adorned countless Valentine’s Day cards, bumper stickers, candy boxes, poker cards, T-shirts and posters. While its use dates back several centuries, this symbol probably became most famous when graphic designer Milton Glaser scribbled an I [heart] NY logo in the back of a New York City taxi in 1976 using red crayon. His design became the cornerstone of a tourism campaign for New York the following summer and the phrase became its enduring state slogan.
The simplified and attractive heart symbol bears little resemblance to an actual human heart, but it has long been used to connote romantic love and affection. In many video games, notably Minecraft, a heart represents health or how many lives a player has left. A red heart is also one of the most commonly used emojis.
Heart-shape items have been made for centuries as decorations and artful objects. Certain leaves that have a heart shape, such as ivy and water lily leaves, are incorporated into heraldic art. In Scotland, ivy was typically given to a couple on their wedding day as a symbol of fidelity and devotion.
Heart-shape objects to be worn or displayed are abundant, particularly as jewelry. While round brilliant cuts are most popular in gemstones, heart cuts are a clear favorite, and are especially appealing in large stones set in necklaces. A fine example is a diamond, platinum and gold pendant centered by a 3.77-carat, heart-shape yellow diamond surrounded by white baguette white diamonds that brought $14,000 plus the buyer’s premium in September 2022 at Heritage Auctions.
Decorative objects, such as heart-shape baskets, are also popular. A Tanioka Shigeo Heart basket from 2003 attained $14,000 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2018 at Rago Arts and Auction Center. Crafted using a Kumimono technique, the basket is woven from Madake, susutake, hobichiku and rattan.
Art glass is another medium that has embraced the heart motif. The Bohemian glass behemoth Loetz made many vases graced with hearts, including an iridescent Phanomen vase that brought $8,000 plus the buyer’s premium in December 2019 at MBA Seattle Auction.
Within folk art, particularly among the Pennsylvania Dutch wares and Shaker goods made in the United States in the 18th and 19th centuries, few motifs can trump hearts. The saying “hands to work, hearts to God,” attributed to Shakers founder Mother Ann Lee, served as a manifesto of sorts for furniture enthusiasts and crafters alike. Hearts have long been painted onto furniture and artful objects as well as carved in relief or as cutouts. A circa-1820 Lancaster, Pennsylvania spice box in cherry wood with heart cut outs made $8,500 plus the buyer’s premium in January 2022 at New England Auction.
Countless artists have incorporated the heart shape into their creations. Among the most well known in the contemporary era are Jim Dine (American, b. 1935-) and Peter Max (German-American, b. 1937-), each of whom has created multiple works of art featuring the love symbol. Many of Max’s paintings and sculptures depict colorful hearts. His signed acrylic sculpture, Two Hearts, showing two red hearts outlined by and atop a whirl of bright colors, realized $6,750 plus the buyer’s premium in January 2023 at Lion and Unicorn.
While hearts are ubiquitous in stores in the weeks leading up to Valentine’s Day, there is a rich tradition of heart motifs in fine and decorative art that transcends the holiday. Heart-shape objects, be they made of paper, wood, metal, glass or gemstones, are admired year-round for their beauty and the feelings of love and friendship they inspire.