Joshua Hargrave Sams Mann, The Child’s Grave, 1857, Oil on canvas. Smart Museum of Art, The University of Chicago, Bequest of Robert Coale, 2007.133.

Edward Coley Burne-Jones, Briar Rose: The Rose Bower, 1892, Photogravure on paper. Smart Museum of Art, The University of Chicago, University Transfer from Max Epstein Archive, 1980.160.

Tragedy and Pathos, the Ability of Art to Portray Emotions

Henry Fuseli, Macbeth Consulting the Vision of the Armed Head, 1793, Oil on canvas. Courtesy the Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington.

Anna Lea Merritt, Ophelia, 1880, Oil on canvas. Smart Museum of Art, The University of Chicago, Bequest of Robert Coale, 2007.134.

Edouard Manet, The Tragic Actor (Rouvi¸re as Hamlet), 1866, Oil on canvas. Courtesy the National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of Edith Stuyvesant Gerry, 1959.3.1.


Smart Museum of Art
University of Chicago
5550 S. Greenwood Avenue
The Tragic Muse: Art and Emotion, 1700-1900
February 10-June 5, 2011

From the sacrifice of classical heroines to the grief of ordinary people, a new Smart Museum exhibition examines tragic emotion and asks, “How and why does art move us?”

The University of Chicago’s Smart Museum of Art presents The Tragic Muse: Art and Emotion, 1700-1900, a new exhibition that investigates art’s power to express and elicit intense emotions. The exhibition examines two centuries of European works filled with darker emotions and explores the ways in which the visual representation of tragedy — as well as art’s cathartic power over new generations of viewers — has changed dramatically over time.

The Tragic Muse asks basic questions about how we react to certain works of art, and it does so with the critical eye and interdisciplinary approach for which the University of Chicago is renowned,” said Anthony Hirschel, Dana Feitler Director of the Smart Museum of Art. “The result is a revelatory project filled with challenging ideas and emotional power.”

The Tragic Muse combines works from the Smart’s collection — both long-held treasures and new acquisitions — with important loans from national and international museums. Divided into four thematic sections, it includes nearly 40 paintings, sculptures, and prints by artists including Edward Burne-Jones, Henry Fuseli, Édouard Manet, Anna Lea Merritt, Edvard Munch, Pablo Picasso, Richard Redgrave, Auguste Rodin, George Romney, and Benjamin West.

The Tragic Muse is curated by Anne Leonard, Smart Museum Curator and Mellon Program Coordinator. Leonard established the rich intellectual groundwork of the exhibition and accompanying catalogue by convening a yearlong series of workshops attended by nine University of Chicago faculty members from a range of departments — Art History, Classics, Germanic Studies, Music, Romance Languages, and Social Thought.

Art is often appreciated for its ability to delight our eyes and refresh our minds. But it can also serve as a powerful vehicle for exploring darker emotions such as fear, sadness, and grief. And while these themes have a history dating back to the ancients, the ways in which they have been represented in art and received by the public has changed dramatically over time.

“Some of the works in the exhibition may strike visitors as being overly sentimental,” said curator Anne Leonard. “But studying them closely opens up a host of interesting questions. How is it that these supremely expressive paintings suffered such a decline in public esteem? If they fail today as vehicles for strong emotion, is that our fault or theirs? To what extent can they still move us?”

Rather than offer a comprehensive survey, The Tragic Muse exhibition provides an in-depth look at the central themes and shifts in approaches to tragedy across several distinct moments: the 18th century, when a close relationship existed between the expression of emotion in painting and larger-than-life stories from the Bible, classics, and theater; the Victorian age, when pictorial realism and the portrayal of more quotidian events invited closer emotional identification from viewers; and the years around 1900, when a new aesthetic focus emerged around the solitary figure as an emblem of universal human sorrow.

The majority of the thirty-six paintings, prints, drawings, and sculptures on view are from the Smart Museum’s collection, with important loans coming from the Art Institute of Chicago, Folger Shakespeare Library, Milwaukee Art Museum, National Gallery of Art, Princeton University Art Museum, Tate, Yale Center for British Art, and Yale University Art Gallery.

The Mellon Program The Tragic Muse is the latest in the Smart Museum’s series of collection-based exhibitions rooted in the academic life of the University of Chicago. Generously funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the program has, since 1992, spurred new scholarship and fostered connections between the Smart and faculty, scholars, and students at the University. The program was recently bolstered by an additional gift from the Mellon Foundation — the single largest foundation gift in the Museum’s history — that has allowed the Smart to sustain, strengthen, and extend these unique interdisciplinary connections.

Under the aegis of the Mellon Program, The Tragic Muse exhibition and accompanying catalogue were developed over an extensive series of workshops attended by University of Chicago faculty members from an array of fields, in which participants looked at the works of art together and studied the philosophical underpinnings of tragedy by reading from the likes of Baudelaire, Hegel, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche.

An accompanying catalogue draws on the work of several distinguished scholars to examine the richly varied representation of tragedy in the European artistic tradition over the course of two centuries. This catalogue is generously illustrated with full-color reproductions of all the works contained in the exhibition, and the fascinating contributions offer new insights into the approaches taken by the visual arts, as well as literature and drama, in expressing and eliciting strong emotions. By Anne Leonard, with contributions by Joyce Suechun Cheng, Glenn W. Most, Erin Nerstad, Sarah Nooter, and Thomas Pavel.

George Minne, Kneeling Youth, c. 1900, Cast plaster. Smart Museum of Art, The University of Chicago, Purchase, Paul and Miriam Kirkley Fund for Acquisitions, 2008.16.

Francesco Fontebasso, The Martyrdom of Saint Catherine, 1744, Oil on canvas. Smart Museum of Art, The University of Chicago, Purchase, The Cochrane-Woods Collection, 1978.23.

Noël Hallé, Joseph Accused by Potiphar’s Wife, c. 1740-44, Oil on canvas. Smart Museum of Art, The University of Chicago, Purchase from gift of the Mark Morton Memorial Fund, and Mr. and Mrs. Eugene Davidson, 1974.11 6.