Victorian Sentimentality

This weekend, I went to Tate Britain to see a little exhibition called ‘Victorian Sentimentality’. While the exhibition was just one room, it contained some Victorian giants, and was also immensely thought-provoking. The exhibition notes suggest that at a time when so many aspects of Victorian art have been re-evaluated, a rethink is overdue of the ‘maligned and misunderstood phenomenon’ of Victorian sentimentality. This exhibition, which offers an overview of the ‘development of sentimental art’, attempts to make us reassess our views, and asks what it is which has turned modern critics and audiences off sentimentality – is it a kind of snobbery towards the populist; a distaste for the emotive; a fear of the hackneyed or clicheed, or a distrust towards art which attempts to manipulate the viewer? The first painting I saw was Landseer’s Dignity and Impudence (1839) (left), and I have to say that this is a really good example.  My first response to the painting is a kind of disapproval, almost disgust, and yet it’s well-painted, and I like dogs. But its sentimentality, which, like nostalgia, is viewed with deep suspicion by academe, puts me off. A copy of this painting used to hang in a nursing home I worked in; it represents a kind of classic ‘bad taste’. But what is wrong with it? A lot of it must be about a mistrust of the cliche. The title is also unhelpful, something which I noticed throughout the exhibition; it tries to transform a picture of two dogs into something higher, something human, even, and that seems rather – facile, or trite. Perhaps it is academic snobbery…

Onwards. Other pictures included here present different problems; for example, Andrew MacCallum’s 1885 Silvery Moments, Burnham Beeches, is actually quite a beautiful picture, which depicts a pictorial resistance to manmade destruction. My problem here is definitely the title; that is verging on the cheesy. Narrative painting with an emotional pull also seems to be too sentimental for modern tastes. Such paintings included Millais’s The Order of Release (1852-3), Abraham Solomon’s Waiting for the Verdict (1857) and Not Guilty (The Acquital) (1859) and Arthur Hughes, April Love (1855-6). These narrative paintings invite the viewer to fill in a back-story, and to respond in an emotional way, to take on the emotions of the figures depicted and to, perhaps, bond with the painting. This is perhaps more difficult for modern audiences. Many of these paintings also include what we would think of as cliches of emotive art: a dog, a baby, a bereavement, love, relief, etc.

Particularly sentimental, to my mind, is Philip Hermogenes Calderon, Broken Vows (1856) (right), which was exhibited with lines from Longfellow: ‘More hearts are breaking in this world of ours’. Not dissimilar in many ways to Hughes’s painting, in Broken Vows the painting itself seems a cliche, trite, skimming the surface, despite its apparent depiction of heartbreak. Another particularly interesting painting, I thought, was Walter Deverell’s A Pet (1853) (left), in which it is unclear whether the pet is the woman or the bird; and both are bounded in the painting, by the cage or the doorway. Such an idea, the woman as a caged bird, is certainly a cliche of Victorian studies now, but I am not sure whether that is sentimental; however, if we take the painting at face value – as a woman’s love for her pet – then it certainly is sentimental. Perhaps what lifts a work of art from the ‘merely’ sentimental is a certain depth, scope for further discussion, for alternative readings etc. This academic reading is much more difficult, of course, if we become ‘entangled’, as Roger Fry said, in the emotions of a work, such as Luke Fildes’s painting The Doctor (1891), depicting a night vigil beside a child, based on the death of Fildes’s own son. It is difficult not to be moved by the emotions of many of these paintings – particularly in the latter part of the exhibition, which featured many children – ill, dying, starving etc. These paintings may be sentimental, but they would also have served a social purpose; pulling on the heartstrings can make people open their wallets, or be moved to act for the good of the poor and needy.

Of course, these ‘sentimental’ paintings are rarely avant-garde; they tend to be well-executed but not particularly striking in artistic merit. But they were phenomenally popular, and perhaps our resistance to engaging with sentiment needs to be fully reassessed. The last image in the exhibition is one of the most striking: Watts’s painting Death Crowning Innocence (1886-7) (right), a painting full of symbolism, meant as a comfort to bereaved parents, but nonetheless an important and striking painting in its own right. Somehow, sentiment here seems rightly placed; the painting can engage viewers’ attention and emotions without seeming excessively clicheed. This is certainly the right painting to close the exhibition with. And at least there was no Bubbles – which was what I had most feared.

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