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The Egyptian Sphinx, magnificently posing in the desert sun; the battleship USS Constitution, surging against monumental waves in an ocean tempest; a court jester, silently pouring himself a glass of liquor before his performance. None of these three diverse 19th century paintings are classics. Nor were they created by renowned masters of art, nor do they reflect brilliant innovations in art history or even a common aesthetic theme. But each of these paintings is worth a thousand words. Each follows in the tradition of narrative art -- depicting a single event which inspires viewers to imagine an entire story. "[The enhibit is] thematic, not the best or the most innovative," said Susan Danly, the show's curator. This rarely-examined theme of narrative art is featured in Telling Tales: 19th-Century Narrative Storytelling, which will be showing at the Academy museum, located at Broad and Cherry Streets in Center City through April 19. Danly, emphasizes that the exhibit portrays the popular works of art that the general public would admire during the 19th century; these are the paintings which would travel thorughout the American countryside, accessible to all, from poor farmers to the wealthy art collectors. Often reproduced in other mediums, including books and on fabric, these paintings tell the stories that American people wanted to see. Danly, who designed the show, says the exhibit, which was selected from the Academy museum's extensive collection, examines how narrative paintings reflect and shape the popular cultural views and values of those who originally viewed the art -- the American everyman. · The Academy, the oldest art museum in America, is pefectly suited for an exhibition on narrative art. Having first opened its doors in 1805, it gave special emphasis to narrative painting throughout the 19th century. The museum's original mission was to educate both art students and the general public alike, and it therefore collected narrative paintings as teaching tools. Telling Tales is geared towards educating today's students as well, Danly says. The paintings' labels provide particularly detailed information on the artist and the work's historical background -- the work's stories could fit into an American history student's curriculum. Centering around American artists and painters who spent their careers in the US, the 50-work exhibit focuses on three categories of tales which the paintings depict: traditional stories from the Bible, classical myths and European history, stories documenting American history and everyday life, and fictional stories created from the artist's imagination. These paintings served as a backdrop while the American people were building the set supporting their eventual emergence as a world power. And the cultural traits reflected in this exhibit persist in modern American society as well, according to Danly. · Some of the characteristics which the paintings reflect about American society are brutally accurate. Telling Tales shows that Americans have perpetuated myths and deceived themselves about their past for centuries. Edward Savage's work from 1800, "Penn's Treaty with the Indians", shows a group of Quaker statesmen making a civilized pact with local Indians and exchanging cloth while churches are being built in the background. The flaw with this idyllic scene, says Danly, is that William Penn never made a legal treaty with the Native Americans; the event never occurred. Danly sees the reason behind the gross historical inaccuracies of the narrative paintings as a reflection of a trait in American culture to perpetuate myths which suit the ideals of the times. In "Penn's Treaty," the American habit of romanticizing and sanitizing the cruelty of the nation's past in order to rationalize current immoral actions -- in this case the land-grabbing justification of Manifest Destiny -- is dramatically brought to life. But the purpose of the Academy's show is not meant solely to drive home America's flaws, and not all the insights into the nation's culture which Telling Tales shows are so ignoble. William Sidney Mount's 1938 narrative painting "The Painter's Triumph" portrays an artist illuminating a simple fisherman through his artwork. The painting implies an accompanying story, says Danly, which the viewer is meant to create in his mind. "The Painter's Triumph" reflects a common American cultural theme, that art appreciation can bestow sophistication and bring educational development. A few of the paintings featured are interesting solely because they create a beautiful and imaginative tale, and not for such complex sociological and cultural reasons. Thomas Buchanan Reed's 1868 work "The Flight of the Arrow" shows a glowing, sensual rendition of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love. The narrrative painting alludes to a classic tale of how her son Eros fires his arrows of love. But whether you gain a greater understanding of American society or simply thrive off the paintings in Telling Tales as inspiring illustrations, these works of art are certainly worth a thousand words. Maybe even more.

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