The Tragic Muse: Art and Emotion, 1700-1900

February 10 – June 5, 2011

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 have changed dramatically over time.

This exhibition examines two centuries of works intertwined with emotion—from the sacrifice of classical heroines to the grief of ordinary people, from martyred saints to actors in tragic roles—and explores how art’s cathartic power grows or fades for new generations of viewers. With over forty paintings, sculptures, and prints, The Tragic Muse combines works from the Smart’s collection—both long-held treasures and new acquisitions—with important loans from the Art Institute of Chicago, Milwaukee Art Museum, National Gallery of Art, and Tate. Together with an accompanying catalogue, the exhibition draws on the scholarship of University of Chicago faculty to offer fresh insight into the visual representation of tragedy and art’s power to express and elicit intense emotions.


Anne Leonard, Smart Museum Curator and Mellon Program Coordinator.


This exhibition is one in a series of projects at the Smart Museum of Art supported by an endowment from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation that fosters interdisciplinary use of the Museum’s collections by University of Chicago faculty and students in both courses and special exhibitions. The Tragic Muse exhibition catalogue has received additional grant support from the Samuel H. Kress Foundation.

Presented in the Richard and Mary L. Gray Gallery for Special Exhibitions.

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