How artists' depiction of emotion evolved over centuries

March 7, 2011 By Susie Allen, University of Chicago
“The Tragic Muse” also features Odilon Redon, Vision, 1895/1897, black pastel with charcoal and black chalk on ivory wove paper, 52.6 x 37.7 cm. Courtesy The Art Institute of Chicago. Credit: Smart Museum of Art

How and why does art make us feel the way we do?

That was the guiding question behind the Smart Museum of Art’s latest exhibition, “The Tragic Muse: Art and Emotion 1700–1900,” according to the exhibition’s curator Anne Leonard.

“It seems like the most basic question you can ask about art,” she said. “What is it that makes one work of art draw us in and make us unable to think of anything else for the rest of the day, while other works completely leave us cold?”

Working with some of the Smart Museum’s recent acquisitions, Leonard began to assemble a series of pieces for the exhibition that dealt with tragic emotion. The exhibition, which also includes pieces on loan from museums across the country, reflects the evolving portrayal of powerful emotion in art. It includes everything from Francesco Fontebasso’s dramatic depiction of the martyrdom of Saint Catherine to Odilon Redon’s stark, haunting “Vision.”

The Smart Museum of Art’s current exhibition “The Tragic Muse: Art and Emotion, 1700-1900, includes Francesco Fontebasso, The Martyrdom of Saint Catherine, 1744, Oil on canvas. Smart Museum of Art, The University of Chicago, Purchase, The Cochrane-Woods Collection. Credit: Smart Museum of Art

The range of pieces and styles is fitting, Leonard said. From the 18th to the 20th century, “there were huge changes in what audiences expected of art.” In the 1700s, the depiction of emotion was highly codified. Some artists even relied on rule books with demonstration drawings to guide their portrayal of emotion. By the 1900s, on the eve of modernism, artists had largely begun to reject such codes.

“You see a displacement of emotion from the human face, the human actor, the human gesture, to something like color or line—formal aspects of art that may not even connect to human beings being represented,” Leonard explained.

In the course of putting together the exhibition, Leonard brought together faculty members from across the University for a series of workshops to discuss the artworks she had chosen. The freewheeling discussions guided Leonard as she put the finishing touches on “The Tragic Muse.”

“It got lively very quickly, as you would expect with UChicago faculty members,” Leonard said.

Sarah Nooter, Assistant Professor of Classics and the College, participated in the faculty workshops. “It was my first year at the University, and the opportunity to work with colleagues in other departments was exciting. [The workshops] had a very free, fun, intellectual atmosphere.”

Other faculty members who participated in the workshops were Lorraine Daston, Visiting Professor of Social Thought and History; Martha Feldman, the Mabel Greene Myers Professor in the Humanities, Music, and the College; David Levin, Professor in Germanic Studies, Cinema and Media Studies, Theatre and Performance Studies, and the College; Glenn W. Most, Professor in the John U. Nef Committee on Social Thought; PhD candidate Erin Nerstad; Thomas Pavel, the Gordon J. Laing Distinguished Service Professor in Romance Languages and Literatures; Ralph Ubl, the Jean and Alan Frumkin Professor of Visual Arts in the John U. Nef Committee on Social Thought and the College; Christopher Wild, Associate Professor in Germanic Studies and the College; and Joyce Suechun Cheng, former PhD in Art History and now assistant professor of art history at the University of Oregon. Nooter, like many of the faculty participants, also contributed an essay to the exhibition catalogue.

Although Nooter typically studies texts rather than images, she was struck by how issues like violence were handled in a visual medium. “Seeing the same dynamics translated into one moment [in the paintings] was fascinating,” she said.

Since 1992, the Mellon Foundation has supported the Smart Museum of Art’s efforts to collaborate with faculty and students on projects like “The Tragic Muse.” An additional grant totaling $1.25 million grant from the foundation supported the exhibition and a matching bequest of $750,000 will continue to bolster future collaborative efforts between the University and the Smart Museum.

“This is exactly the kind of complex, multi–layered, thematic question we want to tackle,” said Anthony Hirschel, the Dana Feitler Director of the Smart . “With additional support from the Mellon Foundation, we were able to be more expansive in our thinking about borrowing key works of art to supplement the material in our own collection. In addition, this time we engaged a much larger group of scholars in conversation about the project from the very beginning. The gift allows for the expansion of a program that has been very successful for us.”

“The Tragic Muse” is on view until June 5.

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