If we search through google for essays on the nature of Victorian narrative painting, the term that appears most often is sentimentality. In contrast to the robust genre scenes by earlier Flemish artists, Victorian paintings of contemporary life, the argument goes, too often attempt to elicit facile responses of tenderness, sorrow, delight or pity. "A sentimentalist,” Oscar Wilde asserted, "is one who desires to have the luxury of an emotion without paying for it.” Presumably, the viewers of Victorian narrative painting enjoyed the soft tug of emotions without feeling the real power of art that portrays the more heroic qualities of courage, tragedy, or religious conviction.
If we survey a diverse selection of Victorian art, however, such easy dismissals are difficult to support. Is the painting of Doctor Johnson in Lord Chesterfield’s anteroom merely a tear-jerker? Is the Dicksee image of the newly-crowned hero contemplating the thorn-crowned Christ only meant for pious weepers?
Victorian narrative painting gives us stories, real or imagined, from everyday life; and in doing so, they make it possible for anyone and everyone to relate to the emotions of the narrative. Unlike the work of abstract artists, the Victorian narrative painters did not draw attention to the formal qualities of their art. They share more of a common spirit with the characters of Charles Dickens than with the theories of Herbert Spencer.
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