conversation piece

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Arthur Devis, Portrait of Sir George and Lady Strickland in the park of Boynton Hall, 1751


conversation piece (plural conversation pieces)

  1. An unusual item, such as a painting, or a tabletop knick-knack which encourages comment from visitors, and so helps to break the ice.
    • 1973, Kurt Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions, Random House, published 2010, →ISBN, page 261:
      And Dwayne again carried on a wry talk with the Creator of the Universe, using a robot as an unfeeling conversation piece. A lot of people in Midland City put useless objects from Hawaii or Mexico or someplace like that on their coffee tables or their livingroom end tables or on what-not shelves—and such an object was called a conversation piece.
    • 1995, Greil Marcus, “Escape from New York”, in The Dustbin of History, Picador, →ISBN, page 188:
      In 1965, when I moved into my first college apartment, one of my roommates tacked a poster of Guernica up in our kitchen. It was an odd thing to eat under, people said, all those mute screams and twisted shapes; we'd turned a cliché, the requisite famous art in a student apartment, into a conversation piece, but we got used to it, and soon the carnage was just decoration.
  2. (painting) A painting of a group of people engaged in conversation or some other activity, popular in 18th century.
    • 1971, William Gaunt, The Great Century of British Painting: Hogarth to Turner:
      Hogarth's enlargement of painting's scope was based on the conversation piece, which was to prove one of the most flexible and adaptable of genres. The idea of an informal group was not in itself new, nor the invention of Hogarth alone.
    • 2001, Jules David Prown, Art as Evidence: Writings on Art and Material Culture, Yale University Press (→ISBN)
      The painting is a conversation piece without conversation and rightly regarded as one of the masterpieces of the Paul Mellon Collection at Yale.

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