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February 6th, 2002
The Plot Thickens: British Prints Spin Visual Tales In Exhibition From Museum’s Permanent Collection

In the 18th and 19th century, while the British rediscovered the plays of William Shakespeare and enjoyed contemporary novels by Henry Fielding and Oliver Goldsmith, the nation’s literary awareness gave rise to narrative art---works whose chief intention is to tell a story. This era of visual storytelling is explored in an exhibition of prints on view from March 16-June 23, 2002 in the Berman Gallery of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

The Plot Thickens: Narrative in British Printmaking, 1700-1900, features some forty-five prints drawn from Museum holdings that illustrate Britain’s fascination with narrative art. Using contemporary novels, poems, Shakespeare’s plays and even history books for inspiration, British artists encouraged viewers to “read” their images by making every object and gesture within the picture an important element of the unfolding tale. Artists even abandoned traditional ways of making portraits and landscapes to meet the high demand for such plot-driven imagery.

An important result of this art form’s popularity was a boom in prints reproduced from paintings. British artists often made paintings specifically with the print market in mind, and the public eagerly collected such works, which were less expensive substitutes for paintings and were often framed and displayed on the parlor walls in middle-class homes.

William Hogarth (1697-1764) popularized narrative art with such inventive works as The Harlot’s Progress (1732) the first of several satirical works by the artist to use a series of engravings to tell a complex visual tale. Mr. Garrick in the Character of Richard III (1746), etched and engraved by Hogarth and Charles Grignion I, portrayed the legendary David Garrick in the part that brought the young actor instant success and launched a new period of Shakespearean stage production. The work depicts the famous scene in which Richard wakes from a nightmare filled with the ghosts of those he has killed.

Included in the exhibition are a number of works commissioned by John Boydell (1719-1804), a successful London publisher and patron of the arts who recognized the public’s insatiable appetite for prints based on Shakespeare’s plays. He commissioned 167 highly dramatic paintings depicting the Bard’s characters, and sold prints of the works to help fund his Shakespeare Gallery.

Other engravings on display include those after Sir Joshua Reynolds’ celebrated portrait of The Montgomery Sisters Decorating a Term of Hymen and David Wilkie’s . Also on view are prints by William Blake and Samuel Palmer.

The exhibition will be presented in the Museum’s Berman Gallery and is organized by Andrea Fredericksen, the Andrew W. Mellon Fellow in the Department of Prints, Drawings and Photographs.

Housing some 140,000 works of art, the Department of Prints, Drawings and Photographs at the Philadelphia Museum of Art is nationally recognized for the breadth and depth of its collections as well as the flair and scholarship of its exhibitions. The Department presents rotating installations of its vast holdings in the Berman and Stieglitz Galleries on the Museum’s ground floor and the Eglin Gallery on the first floor. Individual works are also on view in the Museum’s permanent collection galleries.

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