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Elegy: Lament in the 20th Century

February 12–July 24, 2022

See how artists have responded to tragedy, grappled with mortality, and commemorated those who have passed.

What is elegy?

An elegy is a song or poem expressing sorrow or mourning, often reflecting on someone who has died. This exhibition explores how artists have created visual elegies to respond to death, tragedy, and violence.

When the arts address grief, is their role to be cathartic, allowing the artists to express and viewers to feel intense emotion? Are they meant to be catalytic, instigating actions to rectify circumstances surrounding deaths that were unnecessary, unjust, and atrocious? Do the works offer some a sense of commiseration and comfort? The goal of this exhibition is to create a space for thinking about these powerful emotions and possible responses.

All the works of art on view are from the museum’s permanent collection, with most created between 1900 and 2000 by artists who either lived or worked in the United States for some part of their careers. The chronological distance allows us to see how artists of the last century worked to keep people, events, and states of being alive in memory and to place the collective grief and trauma of our present moment into a broader context.

Exhibition Themes

“The Elegiac Gesture” section of the exhibition focuses on work that represents grief with age-old forms of human expression, such as clasped hands, closed or sunken eyes, and bowed heads. “Symbols of Lamentation” and “Rituals of Grieving” offer themes from various cultures and religions viewed through modernists’ perspectives. “Wearing Grief” looks at mourning attire and how the body can be clothed to convey and to obscure emotion. A final section explores how artists distill and convey deep emotion through abstraction.

Visitor Alert

Please be aware that this exhibition contains several works of art that may be difficult or painful to experience.

Main Building


Elegy: Lament in the Twentieth Century has been made possible by the Laura and William C. Buck Endowment for Exhibitions, the Lois G. and Julian A. Brodsky Installation and Exhibition Fund, Ellen and Ronald Caplan, Boo and Morris Stroud, and other generous donors. Additional support provided by the Center for American Art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.


Jessica T. Smith, Susan Gray Detweiler Curator of American Art, and Manager, Center for American Art

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