Abraham Solomon, ‘Waiting for the Verdict’ 1857
Abraham Solomon
Waiting for the Verdict 1857

This display revisits ‘sentimental’ images of children and animals, to suggest more urgent and topical interpretations.

In recent years art historians and curators have brought about a sea change in the way Victorian art is perceived. The work of the Pre-Raphaelites and of the Aesthetic movement has been completely re-evaluated. Yet one aspect of Victorian art remains resistant to rehabilitation: its sentimentality. This display brings Victorian sentimentality into the spotlight and considers a much maligned and misunderstood phenomenon. 

Why has sentimentality come to seem so unforgivable? It might simply be a result of snobbery directed against art that appeals to popular taste, or because the emotive themes that recur in sentimental art – childhood and especially child death, forsaken love, animals, sunsets, heart-rending stories and pathetic scenes – now seem hackneyed. Alternatively, it could be the way the pictures invite (or manipulate) the viewer into an emotional response, using narrative, colour, light and shade and recurring symbols such as scattered flowers. 

The term ‘sentimental’ was first used in the eighteenth century when the cultivation of feeling became fashionable. This display traces the development of sentimental art from its mid-Victorian heyday to its transformation into Symbolist emotional imagery at the end of the nineteenth century. Tate’s collection began in 1889 with Sir Henry Tate’s gift to the nation of 65 works by contemporary British artists. Many of his paintings explore emotive subjects, and some are included in this display.

This display has been devised by Nicola Bown, Senior Lecturer in Victorian Studies at Birkbeck, University of London; Victoria Mills, Research Fellow, Darwin College, University of Cambridge; and curator Alison Smith.