Genius and Ambition II: The fine line between Sentimentality and Sensibility

Sensibility is being ableable to appreciate and respond to make complex emotional or aesthetic responses particularly to art and literature whereas sentimentality is an exaggerated and self-indulgent response. It’s a fine line in this exhibition shows how easy it is to cross over it.

To the modern viewer, much of Victorian art is often laden with sentimentality. This exhibition has examples of a genre that was undoubtedly very popular with Victorians but may be somewhat cloying to a modern audience. Nicholas Chevalier’s painting Weary, a Day at St Leonards is a fine example of this.

Weary, a Day at St Leonards
Weary, a Day at St Leonards

The young girl exhausted by her labours selling flowers at the seaside resort. She is an idealised beauty complemented by the basket of flowers, dressed in tidy but worn clothing. Our heartstrings are plucked by the fact that she is resting on a crutch: not only poverty stricken but crippled as well. It’s pure sentimentality, as is another painting by Chevalier.

Nicholas Chevalier, Seeking Fortune,
Nicholas Chevalier, Seeking Fortune,

The boy and the flower seller could easily be brother and sister is just that he’s got a better start in life with a violin rather than a basket of flowers.

Yet another marvellous example of this sentimentality is John Callcott Horsley’s A Pleasant Corner where the subject is seated in the corner of a comfortable living room with the light from the window creating an idealised picture of domestic contentment.

Coates corner

But it has an unreal air to it when you look more closely at the doll-like face of the subject that is idealised almost to the point of caricature.

Another rather cloying example of the style is George Frederick Folingsby’s The First Lesson

George Frederick Folingsby  The First Lesson
George Frederick Folingsby The First Lesson

Here the gorgeously petty coated young child, supported and encouraged by his mother, reaches up to play what looks like his first Beethoven piano sonata.

We get more chubby-cheeked beauty in George Coates’s Motherhood with a gorgeously attired mother looking anxiously over the slightly feverish but still chubby-cheeked child.


Coates was clearly keen on these shots of the affluent upper classes and their beautifully attired children as it shown in another idealised picture of the relationship between parent and child.

coates 3

Coates’ A Friendly Game is another idealised picture of the mother-child relationship.

COates a ffriendly game

The beautiful young mother looks over two idealised and beautiful children all bathed in beautiful light and wearing rich and gorgeous clothes. The painting captures a relationship between the three. The mother, solicitous of the response of the younger girl while her older and more accomplished sister watches haughtily to see what her younger sister’s response will be.

But we get both barrels of Victorian sentimentality with Richard Redgrave’s The Outcast.


The despair of the family and the anger of the father all point towards the dark void into which a young woman and her baby must soon step. It’s a heartrending portrayal of the plight of the fallen woman and there is clearly a rich narrative behind the picture. Of course, we sympathise with the plight of the young mother and with the baby whose small hand is reaching out into the darkness. But the artist is really laying it on with a trowel here.

It gets worse.In Edwin Henry Landseer’s The Faithful Hound, we have the dog howling over its fallen master, clad in armour, clearly killed, obviously heroically and possibly treacherously, in battle.


Fortunately, there wasn’t too much of this stuff in the exhibition.

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