by Rebecca Bedell. Princeton University Press, November 2018. 232 p. ill. ISBN 9780691153209 (h/c), $45.00.
Reviewed March 2019
In Moved to Tears, Rebecca Bedell counters the denigration of “sentiment” in American art, detailing its relation to visual art and the evolution of its perception. Readers do not need prior knowledge of sentiment to understand the discussion, as the history is overviewed succinctly and in an approachable way. Through the text, Bedell outlines an argument in defense of sentimentality by exploring its relationship to American art across time, genres, and subjects. The author addresses a gap around this concept in art history literature; as Bedell notes, many scholarly considerations are drawn from other disciplines such as philosophy, literature, and cultural studies.
The structure focuses on one to two artists and progresses mostly chronologically. Bedell begins with John Trumbull and Charles Wilson Peale, shortly after the American Revolution, and concludes with John Singer Sargent and Mary Cassatt, when shifting away from sentiment began with the modernists. Other artists whose works are analyzed are Winslow Homer and Andrew Jackson Downing.
Two chapters divert from this model, instead being framed around the core topics of social change and landscape. The chapter on social change provides an interesting argument for the sentimental in American art, giving ample attention to Henry Ossawa Tanner and the use of sentimental imagery by social reform movements. The Hudson River School and George Inness’ work are the focus in the chapter on landscape. There is additional, brief discussion of later artists (Marsden Hartley, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Robert Adams) in the epilogue.
The book is designed beautifully with over half of the illustrations appearing in color. While many black and white images are reproductions of pieces in that style, some are depictions of works originally in color. There are full-page, full-color detail images of core pieces at the start of each chapter, but illustrations within the chapters can be somewhat small for unfamiliar readers. However, there are ample examples to support Bedell’s analyses placed adjacently for ready associations between text and image.
The breadth of time covered includes many well-known names in American art history, making this a book ideal for scholars with subject knowledge. However, the writing, background, and coverage is quite accessible for an academic text, making it of use to those interested in art or art history without such specialties. It is highly recommended for an academic library serving art or art history researchers.