The Tragic Muse


Henry Fuseli, Macbeth Consulting the Vision of the Armed Head,</i>1793<br/>Collection of Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, D.C.The Smart Museum at the University of Chicago mounts modest, intelligent shows, using mostly small-scale works to explore some phenomenon in the history of art and ideas. The museum’s current offering, “The Tragic Muse: Art and Emotion, 1700–1900,” addresses the subject of how artists depict and express sorrow and how audiences respond to those images. Of course, sacrifice and suffering are perennial themes in art history, notably in classical tragedy and Christian iconography, and the topic may be too vast for any exhibition. Wisely, the curators at the Smart Museum narrow their focus to specific aspects of a cultural shift, tracing changes in the iconography and style of emotionally charged art. And, while they do not explicitly raise the issue, this subject seems particularly resonant now, given the re-emergence of figurative art and a concomitant, if tentative, interest in narrative.

In the catalogue, Anne Leonard speculates on why many of the pictures in the exhibition may strike the contemporary viewer as overly sentimental or melodramatic. “The communication between artist and viewer may be marred by a lack of familiarity with expressive codes,” she writes. The Magdalene Attended by Two Angels (c. 1740–50), by Giuseppe Marchesi, called Il Sansone, is a prime example of this breakdown. The Magdalene’s gestures—the eyes rolling back as she looks up to heaven, one hand pointing to her attribute, an ointment jar, while the other gracefully indicates her repentant heart—look mannered to a modern viewer, but they were part of a recognized visual code of rhetorical piety. The same gestural vocabulary appears, to much better effect, in El Greco’s portraits of St. Peter and the Magdalene. For centuries, artists consulted and contributed to encyclopedic guides to gesture and human expression. These conventions made communication easier, but, in the hands of a mediocre artist such as Sansone, they could seem stilted.

It would be wrong to dismiss such effects as theatrical, using the word pejoratively. The idea of tragedy arises from the ancient Greek theater, and the cross-pollination between drama and the visual arts is a pervasive theme in the exhibition. Subjects from Shakespeare were popular, as in Henry Fuseli’s sensationalist painting Macbeth Consulting the Vision of the Armed Head (1793), which brings a proto-horror movie eeriness to the scene. Fuseli’s most famous painting, The Nightmare, is recreated in Gothic (1986), Ken Russell’s film about the Shelley milieu and the spawning of Frankenstein. Engravings disseminated images of Shakespearean tragedy. The exhibition includes Romeo and Juliet, Act IV, Scene 5 (Juliet on Her Bed), an 1803 engraving by George Sigmund Facius and Johann Gottlieb Facius, after John Opie, and King Lear, Act V, Scene 3 (Lear Weeping over the Body of Cordelia), from the same year, by Francis Legat, after James Barry. The Lear scene is interesting because, at the time, the play was usually seen in a revised version that let Cordelia live. The setting is also striking, with a Stonehenge-like circle of monoliths in the background.

Artists drew inspiration from the stagecraft of celebrated actors, who were lionized for their ability to move the audience. Joshua Reynolds enthroned Sarah Siddons in the clouds, with attendant allegorical figures. Francis Howard replicated the portrait in Mrs. Siddons in the Character of the Tragic Muse, a stipple engraving from 1787. George Romney’s oil sketch gives us a glimpse of Siddons in action, with three expressive heads against a stormy sky, in Siddonian Recollections (c. 1785–90). The reigning diva of the later nineteenth century employed a more naturalistic style. The exhibition features Anna Lea Merritt’s oil painting Ophelia (1880) and two etchings of Ellen Terry in one of her great roles. A more ambitious show might include John Singer Sargent’s splendid portrait of Terry as Lady Macbeth.

In the nineteenth century, representations of sorrow took many forms. Tragedy might be traditionally associated with kings and epic heroes, but the poignant genre scene was popular with the Victorians, a phenomenon related to the literary dominance of the novel. Sentimental but well-executed paintings abound. Joshua Hargrave Sams Mann’s The Child’s Grave (1857) is typical of the period, while Richard Redgrave’s The Emigrant’s Last Sight of Home (1858) may work better, to modern eyes, because the artists uses the lovely landscape thematically. By the fin-de-siècle, extroverted expressions of grief were less pervasive. Symbolist introspection was in vogue, and the theatrical gesture seemed vulgar. In George Minne’s Kneeling Youth (cast plaster, c. 1900), the narrow-bodied figure wraps his arms around his body and hides his face. A couple of charcoal drawings by the great Odilon Redon (1840–1916) are densely smudged yet gleaming with ectoplasmic apparitions—like intuitions from a séance. 

Throughout the show, nineteenth-century reproductions dominate. In part, this reflects the modest resources of a university study exhibition, but it also acknowledges the fact that the general public had access to artworks primarily through intermediate images. One of the great painting cycles of the fin-de-siècle, Edward Burne-Jones’s Briar Rose series, is seen here in beautifully nuanced photogravures from 1892. Burne-Jones uses the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale to challenge the novelistic ambitions of the typical Victorian narrative painting, showing the same moment in various parts of the castle: the king dozes in his throne in Briar Rose: The Council Chamber, while the princess stretches out, dreaming, in Briar Rose: The Rose Bower. King and princess are surrounded by supine attendants. The mood is becalmed, enchanted, but formally there is nothing static about these horizontal images. With dynamic drapery and a welter of thorny vines, surfaces are as tangled yet elegantly balanced as a page from the Book of Kells or one of Jackson Pollock’s exercises in abstract sous bois. Burne-Jones worked on several versions of Briar Rose between 1869 and 1890, exploring the aesthetic and psychological possibilities of these frieze-like compositions with vigor and sophistication. “The Tragic Muse: Art and Emotion, 1700–1900” is on view February 10–June 5, 2011, at the Smart Museum of Art, University of Chicago, 5550 South Greenwood Avenue, Chicago, Illinois 60637. On the web at

American Arts Quarterly, Spring 2011, Volume 28, Number 2