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New Exhibit at Carlos Museum highlights influence of ancient Greek figurines on Whistler

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New Exhibit at Carlos Museum highlights influence of ancient Greek figurines on Whistler

Dr. Linda Merrill Teaching Professor of Art History at Emory University. Photo by Sara Amis
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Atlanta, GA — The Michael C. Carlos Museum on the Emory University campus held an opening reception on Feb. 1 for “Recasting Antiquity: Whistler, Tanagra, and the Female Form.”

The exhibit was curated by Teaching Professor of Art History Dr. Linda Merrill and the Carlos Museum’s Curator of Greek and Roman Art Dr. Ruth Allen. It includes eight ancient Greek terracotta figurines and an ancient mold on loan from the Louvre Museum in Paris, 19th-century and modern copies, and several sketches, pastels, color lithographs, and etchings by American artist James McNeill Whistler.

The figurines, called “Tanagras” after the city that was the primary center of production in the Hellenistic period from about the mid-third century BCE through the second century AD, were manufactured in large numbers throughout the Mediterranean world. They were made through a clay mold process in two parts and then painted after firing. The Tanagras usually depict women and children carrying out daily activities in a naturalistic style and were used primarily as votive offerings in temples and as grave goods.

Allen said that the figures depict the ancient Greek ideal of femininity, and typically show women carrying out religious rituals or caring for children, dressed in the complex draped clothing of a respectable woman.

After Tanagras were discovered in the 1870s they became wildly popular and influential on the art of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It was the depiction of drapery and motion in clay that attracted the attention of many artists.

Whistler, who was famously cantankerous, did not acknowledge that he was in any way jumping on the Tanagra bandwagon, but Merrill says that the influence is obvious. In some of Whistler’s art, the poses are too similar to be a coincidence.

“Whistler never admitted to the influence, but it’s clear that it was there,” Merrill said.

Merrill added that the drawings, lithographs, and etchings in the exhibit by Whistler were mainly produced while the artist was living in Paris, where he moved after the French state purchased Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1, best known as “Whistler’s Mother.”

French Consul General Anne-Laure Desjonquères was in attendance.

“It’s an exquisite exhibit. Those figurines I understand from the remarks we just heard are not widely known in the US, and they were very inspirational for an entire art period at a time when France and Paris were the center of the arts,” Desjonquères said.

Desjonquères said that her office, which is based in Atlanta, works to promote cooperation between France and the southeastern US in all areas including the arts.

Merrill said that the exhibit provides an opportunity to combine the ancient and modern in a way that will draw both people who are primarily interested in ancient art and those who are most familiar with comparatively modern artists like Whistler.

“Maybe it will open up new realms for them,” Merrill said.

For more information about the exhibit, click here.

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