19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century, No 4 (2007)

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Selling Sentiment: The Commodification of Emotion in Victorian Visual Culture

Sonia Solicari

Abstract


This essay argues that the Victorian sentimental impulse was motivated by the sharing of emotion and the dynamics of communal and interactive feeling. Integral to the popularity of sentiment was its recognition factor by means of established tropes and conventions. Arguably, the same familiarity that made narrative art accessible also made advertising successful and many of the same motifs ran from exhibition watercolours to book illustration to posters. Works of sentiment operated as emotional souvenirs so that material proof of feeling could be easily digested, displayed and revisited. The essay looks closer at the investment of emotion in ephemeral images, such as music-sheet covers, and the ways in which forms of feeling were standardised and reproduced in keeping with a new art-buying public and the possibilities of wider image dissemination. Focusing upon issues raised during the curation of a current exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum ( A Show of Emotion: Victorian Sentiment in Prints and Drawings, 7 Dec 2006 – 10 Sep 2007) this essay explores the ways in which the sentimental pervaded nineteenth-century visual culture and how, in the cut-throat commercial world of image production, sentiment became manifest and identifiable if only as a notional phenomenon.

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