Pamela Fletcher

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Narrative paintings of modern life were immensely popular at the Royal Academy from the 1850s well into the early twentieth century. Perfectly suited to the Academy's culture of conversation, the pictures invited viewers to respond to the scenes as if they were real life situations, and gossip about the depicted characters as if they were real people. While such responses were routinely derided by critics as evidence of the public's lack of aesthetic sophistication, they offer tantalizing glimpses of the pictures' social lives. This article argues that taking gossip seriously as a mode of engagement with art both amplifies our understanding of the meanings, functions, and pleasures of narrative painting, and suggests specific connections between exhibition culture and the meanings of pictures. Using the richly documented reception of the 'problem pictures' of the 1910s and 1920s as the primary evidence, this article establishes a taxonomy of gossipy modes of engagement with narrative painting, and argues that gossiping about pictures allowed for the performance of individual identity, the creation of social and artistic groups, and connected public and private understandings of the world.