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The Art of Embellishment

May 18–August 28, 1987
East Building, Ground Floor, Study Center

This exhibition is no longer on view at the National Gallery.

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original exhibition poster
click to enlarge

Overview: This exhibition presented a series of book frontispieces and decorative title pages to show ways that visual artists were employed to translate the content of a text into visual terms to grab the attention of readers. Some of the greatest printmakers in the history of art took commissions to illustrate books. Illustrations, however, could be complicated and expensive. Intaglio processes in particular added great cost, as these types of prints required a separate printing from the text with a different kind of press. Often, rather than producing narrative illustrations to be used throughout the book, the publisher would commission only a single image to include at the beginning to try to grab a reader’s attention. In some cases, the artist would employ elaborate borders, allegorical figures, and all manner symbolic imagery to encode as much information as possible in a single image. In other cases, these embellishments would take the form of a portrait of the author. By using borders and objects related to the sitter, artists created portraits that went beyond a simple representation of how the author appeared, instead defining key elements of personality, intellect, or social standing.

Organization: The exhibition was organized by the National Gallery of Art. Caroline Backlund, head of reader services, was curator.

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