July 6, 2009
What’s going on in this picture? Isn’t it obvious? The two 7-year-old boys lay in bed, feeling gloomy. Maybe they’re brothers, scolded for misbehaving. Sent to bed without supper.
The young lady sitting by their side—an older sister, or is it cousin….—wants to cheer them up with a story. A fairy tale of course. Every child loves fairy tales.
As the boys listen to her read, they think about tomorrow. The game of ball that they will play. The bugs they will chase. Soon the words about bears and porridge being too hot melt into silence. The brothers drift off to sleep.
Who is the storyteller when it comes to a work of art—the artist or the viewer?
A little of both, suggests Catherine Walsh, a doctoral candidate at the University of Delaware. Through a fellowship, she will be spending the next year at the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum, digging through 150-year-old works, diaries and letters looking for examples of storytelling in art, specifically between 1830 and 1870. A period, she says, when a flood of storytelling images appeared in popular works.
“A lot of artists thought of themselves as storytellers,” Walsh says. “They aimed to create a narrative in their painting.”
Walsh also believes that museum visitors create narratives when they view a painting. As a family stares at a work, you can hear them engaging with the art. “He’s laughing at her,” a mother will tell her son or “She just told him a secret,” a teenager tells his date.
“Scholars don’t generally take this seriously,” Walsh says. She believes we need to give the general public a little more credit and find value in the narratives a museum visitor constructs on the part of the artist.
Because the conversations Walsh wants to study are in the 19th-century, she will need to rely on written records to form her arguments. She will be focusing on the way viewers see and discuss images, specifically scholars with an interest in visual culture.
Walsh believes that narrative haven’t been properly applied when thinking about American subjects. She wants to explore the elements that artists include in their work that let viewers construct stories about what they see. “I want to take this world of academics, that is so distant from the everyday person, and try to make it more relevant,” she says.
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