Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 16, 2020
Rebecca Bedell Moved to Tears: Rethinking the Art of the Sentimental in the United States Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2018. 232 pp.; 69 color ills.; 44 b/w ills. Cloth $45.00 (9780691153209)

Rebecca Bedell’s splendid book about the central place of sentimentality in American art from the revolutionary era to the First World War seems surprisingly timely in the age of social distancing. For “sentimentality,” as Bedell defines this deeply modern but much maligned pattern of feeling, “asks us to conceive of ourselves in relation to others, to imagine ourselves in their place and to feel for them, in some measure, as for ourselves, recognizing a common and shared humanity” (4). At a time when we are constantly enjoined to wash our hands after coming in contact with others, sentimentality, or whatever name it goes by today—“empathy” might do—insists we not “wash our hands” of others. It urges us to care for them instead. Indeed, the language of sentimentality is hand based: reach out to others, be touched by them, feel their suffering. The sentimental, Bedell argues, “is about human connectedness,” involving “a forging of bonds across divides of time, space, and difference” (4).

In a cogent introduction, Bedell provides a history of sentimentality as both an admired and scorned mode of perception. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it was valued as a progressive way of thinking. “Social reformers relied on it to rouse the public to action, to convince them to help alleviate the suffering of others, including slaves, prisoners, laboring children, and abused animals” (4). In the mid-nineteenth century, those who rejected social reform used the term pejoratively to accuse their adversaries of being soft-minded and insincere. Abolitionists were characterized as “dupes of lachrymose sentimentality,” and opponents of the Mexican-American War (1846-48) were charged with “puling sentimentality about Mexican wrongs and American atrocities” (5).

By the late nineteenth century, advocates of new movements in art such as realism and formalism vilified their sentimental predecessors and contemporaries, charging that sentimental art, allegedly targeted at “inferior” groups such as women, immigrants, and the uneducated poor, was not art at all but only its meretricious imitation. Thomas Eakins’s controversial depiction of an anatomy class, The Gross Clinic (1875), embodies the realist’s disdain for the sentimental by pitting the heroic, clear-eyed, unflinching male surgeon against the young patient’s mother, who shrinks away from the necessary shedding of blood.

In the revisionist 1960s and 1970s, the nineteenth-century cult of sentiment was attacked from a different angle. Now the claim was that it had surreptitiously supported antiprogressive forces in the contested realms of race, class, and gender (Uncle Tom’s Cabin being perhaps the best-known example). Bedell, however, contends that the sentimental was, and still is, politically multivalent: “Some have cast it as a mechanism of white middle-class hegemony. It was that, but much more, including an agent of radical social reform” (9).

In Bedell’s view, there was no one-size-fits-all mode of sentimental art. It came in many shapes and sizes, as evidenced by the diverse body of works she goes on to analyze in the book’s six chapters, which are not strictly in chronological sequence. These include Charles Willson Peale’s glowing portraits of the republic’s “father,” George Washington, and the Revolutionary War battle scenes of John Trumbull; the race-themed paintings of the late-nineteenth-century African American expatriate artist Henry Ossawa Tanner; the domestic architecture of antebellum landscape designer Andrew Jackson Downing, which emphasized the moral influence of the home; and the sentimental and transcendental landscape paintings of the Hudson River School artists and their successors, such as the Barbizon-trained tonalist George Inness.

It makes intuitive sense that the likes of Peale, Trumbull, Tanner, Downing, and Inness would have imbibed the milk of sentimentalism, which flowed freely in America during the revolutionary, antebellum, and postbellum periods. The book’s final two chapters, however, seem counterintuitive, and in a welcome way. In these pages Bedell convincingly asserts that both Winslow Homer and John Singer Sargent, two male American artists who seem to have been anything but sentimental in their art, were resoundingly so. She also satisfyingly problematizes a third major artist of the period, Mary Cassatt, who appropriated the Victorian visual language of mother-and-child sentimentality only to subvert it with her formalist investigations and interventions.

Bedell argues against the conventional image of Homer as a rugged man’s man and gnarly antisentimentalist. In her estimation, “Homer is, in fact, among the greatest, if not the greatest, of American sentimental artists.” His work, she explains, “is deeply and profoundly empathetic, often tender, as well as broadly and pervasively nostalgic” (105). Notoriously taciturn about his intentions, Homer never admitted to being a sentimentalist; he mocked the very idea, as when he wrote to his New York dealer about his depiction of a young fisherwoman at the edge of the sea, “If you want more sentiment put into this picture I can with one or two touches—in five minutes time—give the stomach ache that will suit any customer” (quoted on 108).

Despite such flippant comments, Homer turned out to be the greatest American visual poet of human (and sometimes animal) isolation, matched only in the following century by his spiritual descendent Edward Hopper. Engulfed in a field of wheat, his back to the viewer, a Civil War veteran scythes the crop as, presumably, he had mowed down the bodies of his enemies during the recently ended war. A schoolteacher delivers her lesson to small children in a one-room country schoolhouse, the blank chalkboard against which she is framed suggesting the strict limits of opportunity available to rural, working-class women in the postwar world. A proletarian fisherman rowing alone on a vast, choppy sea stoically gauges the distance he must cover to make it back to the mother ship before he is lost in the oncoming fog. In other works, Homer gives us a close-up view of a black bass hooked on a fisherman’s line and an aerial view of a red fox pursued in a desolate winter landscape by predatory crows who hover over him, awaiting a fatal misstep in the snow. Bedell quotes the literary scholar David Marshall, who writes that the sentimental involves not only “the capacity for feeling, but more specifically the capacity to feel the sentiments of someone else.” This, she says, is what Homer asks of us. “He asks us to empathize physically, emotionally, psychologically, and sensorially with his characters, whether human or animal” (128).

The chapter on Sargent and Cassatt is equally resonant in teasing out the sentimental qualities of these two sophisticated artists, for whom, one might have thought, sentimentality would have been anathema. Sentimentality is usually associated with the small, the rural, the local—not the urbane and cosmopolitan. Bedell notes that in the 1860s and 1870s, the Parisian avant-garde circles to which the young American expatriates Sargent and Cassatt sought entrance were vehemently antisentimental. Decreeing that art must be scientifically and rigorously objective, the naturalist writer Émile Zola demanded that the artist be “an observer and an experimentalist” (quoted on 134), not a moralist or sentimentalist. Bedell explains that both Sargent and Cassatt, each with an eye toward commercial as well as critical success, were unwilling to jettison sentimental subject matter, despite the avant-garde injunctions against it. Sargent himself, unlike Cassatt, formed long-lasting sentimental attachments. Both artists interest Bedell because they repeatedly took on “a negotiation and interrogation of the sentimental. They entered into a dialectical relation with it: engaging it, critiquing it, distancing themselves from it, and in the process transforming it” (136).

To demonstrate, Bedell provides an astute reading of Sargent’s early masterpiece The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit (1882), a group portrait of four sisters, ages four, eight, twelve, and fourteen, posed variously in their starchy white pinafores and accoutered by a rug, a doll, a mirror, and two large Japanese vases in a Parisian apartment. The painting seems starkly modern and unsentimental; even the apartment itself is sparsely decorated, lacking in the typical bric-a-brac of the era. The asymmetrically placed sisters are physically, if not also emotionally, detached from one another. Yet, as Bedell shows, the painting knowingly invokes the language of sentimental childhood and complicates it. It allows the viewer a comforting sense of psychological connectedness to the girls, who seem, after all, to embody familiar stages of childhood development. At the same time, it engenders a modernist feeling of disquietude and alienation. Bedell explores the range of what we might call “modernist sentimentality” in two further Sargent masterpieces, Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose (1885–86), which portrays two girls at play in a garden on a summer night, and, more surprisingly but no less justifiably, his World War I elegy, Gassed (1919).

By bringing to art history the nuanced historical and critical thinking about sentimentality that was pioneered by literary scholars, Bedell encourages art historians to acknowledge the social as well as aesthetic significance of sentimentality in American art. Filled with elegant descriptions and intellectually compelling analyses of well-known paintings, Moved to Tears takes a stand against our era’s knee-jerk disparagement of sentimentality. In its efforts to heighten and preserve a sense of interconnectedness among people, nations, species, and, ultimately, the planet itself, sentimentality deserves the sort of reconsideration offered here.

David M. Lubin
Charlotte C. Weber Professor of Art, Wake Forest University