PERSUASIONS ON-LINE V.32, NO.1 (Winter 2011)

The Iconography of Sensibility

Jeffrey A. Nigro


Jeffrey A. Nigro (email: is an Adjunct Lecturer at the Art Institute of Chicago and currently serves as Regional Coordinator of the Greater Chicago of JASNA.


Like all of Jane Austen’s richly textured novels, Sense and Sensibility can be appreciated on many levels.  One of the ways in which the novel could be read is as a kind of compendium of the cherished themes and obsessions of the cult of Sensibility (often, but not always, treated ironically):  the moving spectacle of young women in distress, love of music and Cowper’s poetry, the Picturesque, the romance of rustic poverty, motherhood, sentimental accessories like miniature portraits and rings with locks of hair, and more tears than one usually encounters in an Austen novel.


That Austen was influenced by and responding to the novels of Sensibility, from Samuel Richardson on, is without question; but I propose that Austen must have been aware of the imagery of Sensibility as well. In Austen’s day Sensibility was a whole culture that included the visual arts as well as literature, music and theater.  In the visual arts, as we shall see, there are certain subjects that were considered especially moving by artists, critics, and audiences.  To employ art historical terminology, Sensibility can be approached through iconography, the choice of subject matter that is particularly meaningful to the artist and/or the society in which the artist works, as well as the way in which that subject matter is visualized.  In Sense and Sensibility we find (unusually for Austen’s novels) a series of “tableaux” that employ some of the favorite subjects of the visual art of Sensibility:  the spectacle of the young woman in distress; the scene of heightened domestic drama; and the deathbed scene.  I believe that Austen consciously employed such tableaux, sometimes seeming to present these themes straightforwardly, sometimes subverting them, as part of her attempt to position her novel as both a celebration and a critique of the cult of Sensibility.


A personification of Sensibility


Sensibility itself (or rather, herself) was visualized, although it was not until almost the end of the century that it was given human form by the British artist George Romney.  Best known in his lifetime for commissioned portraits of the rich and fashionable, Romney may be even better known today for the large body of images he executed of the low-born but ravishing Emma Hart (née Amy Lyon), later the notorious Lady Hamilton.  During the 1780s, Romney portrayed Emma in a variety of mythological and allegorical characters, including as a personification of Sensibility.  The story is recounted by William Hayley, Romney’s first biographer, and author of The Triumphs of Temper, one of the most important poetic expressions of the many facets of Sensibility.  After describing how Emma’s features, “like the language of Shakespeare, could exhibit all the feelings of nature, and all the gradations of every passion,” Hayley continues:


In 1786 her features gave rise to the picture of Sensibility. . . . During a visit to Romney in November, I happened to find him one morning contemplating . . . a recently coloured head, on a small canvas.  I expressed my admiration of his unfinished work in the following terms:—“This is a most happy beginning:  you never painted a female head with such exquisite expression:  you have only to enlarge your canvas, introduce the shrub mimosa, growing in a vase, with a hand of this figure approaching its leaves, and you may call your picture a personification of Sensibility.”—“I like your suggestion, replied the painter, and will enlarge my canvas immediately.”  (Life of George Romney 121)


A mimosa plant having been brought in from a nursery in Hammersmith, the painting was completed, and subsequently engraved (Alexander 281).1


Richard Earlom, after George Romney, Sensibility (1786)


Romney’s Sensibility is a beautiful young woman with an intense but poignant expression; she has flowers in her hair and is dressed in flowing draperies.  She leans forward toward the mimosa plant, one hand on her breast, the other scarcely touching the plant with one graceful finger.  Hayley’s iconography derives from his own Triumphs of Temper, a poem known to have been admired by the future Lady Hamilton, who used it as a guide to her own behavior (Kidson 165).2  In Canto V of the poem, Serena and Sophrosyne (co-heroines, like Elinor and Marianne in Austen’s novel) journey through an enchanted allegorical landscape, where they encounter “the queen,” Sensibility herself.  The latter is exquisitely beautiful, “of that enchanting age . . . just between the woman and the child,” crowned in snowdrops and briar roses, and dressed in delicate gauze:


Her fair left arm around a vase she flings,
From which the tender plant mimosa springs:
Towards its leaves, o’er which she fondly bends,
The youthful fair her vacant hand extends
With gentle motion, anxious to survey
How far the feeling fibres own her sway:
The leaves, as conscious of their queen’s command,
Successive fall at her approaching hand:
Her tender breast with pity seems to pant,
And shrinks at every shrinking of the plant.  (Canto V)


This passage clarifies why the mimosa plant was chosen as an attribute for Sensibility:  the leaves and stems of a number of its species, particularly the mimosa sensitiva and mimosa pudica (also known, tellingly, as the “sensitive plant”), bend and fall if a hand is so much as swept over them, making it an ideal symbol of too-responsive sensitivity (Ittershagen 138).


Allegory and personification have a long history.  Artists of Austen’s lifetime were still referring to Cesare Ripa’s classic allegorical handbook the Iconologia, first published in 1593; but Sensibility, as the eighteenth century understood it, was a relatively new concept, and it was a personification developed jointly by Romney and Hayley.  That Sensibility is imagined as a beautiful young woman is not surprising in the context of allegorical tradition; most personifications are female, given that most abstract nouns are of feminine gender in the Romance languages, as is the case with the French word sensibilité, from which the English word “sensibility,” in its eighteenth-century sense, derives.  Here, however, the figure’s gender is even more relevant; despite the promotion of the Man of Feeling, Sensibility was generally thought of as “feminine,” and women were thought to be particularly susceptible to it.  As Janet Todd points out, as early as the influential novels of Samuel Richardson, there was “an equation of woman’s body and sensibility”; their “palpitations and faintings” made sensitive women physically resemble the drooping mimosa (Todd 81).


Is Marianne Dashwood intended as a personification of Sensibility?  Of course, it is unthinkable that Austen would present a character so simplistically; Marianne’s considerable physical energy, exemplified by her long walks, is on a par with the intensity of her feelings.  Although her rambles can lead to broken ankles and dangerous illness, she is hardly a shrinking “sensitive plant.”  Nevertheless, it is Marianne’s characteristic reckless physicality that makes her life-threatening illness at the novel’s dramatic climax so shocking to the other characters, and there is no question that her illness is related to her feelings of despondency at Willoughby’s betrayal.  As we will see, the spectacle of a lovely but emotionally intense woman in distress, in art as well as literature, was considered particularly moving to an eighteenth-century audience.


Novels in pictures


Innocent young women in states of emotional distress became a staple of the literature of Sensibility primarily because of Richardson’s novels, particularly Pamela (1740) and Clarissa (1747-48), bestsellers on the European continent as well as in Britain.  These novels were visualized from early on:  in 1744 Joseph Highmore was commissioned to execute a series of twelve paintings illustrating the story of Pamela; in a trend that we will see again, these paintings were subsequently engraved for wider distribution.3


Highmore’s paintings are skillful and charming, but they do lack the high emotional pitch of Richardson’s novel.  Highmore’s Pamela is pretty and doll-like, and any viewer who has not read the novel might not be aware of the extremes of euphoria, terror, and near-despair that the character experiences.  Highmore has been criticized for “merely” illustrating the story at the expense of emotion; but, in all fairness to him, he is walking something of the same fine line as Richardson, trying to represent a heroine who is both feisty and demure, and whose emotional state could not exceed the bounds of propriety and modesty.


The novel was the literary genre par excellence of Sensibility, but the format of using a series of images to tell a story was not confined to illustrations of already-written novels.  It became the fashion for eighteenth-century artists to create their own visual novels, original narratives told through images that share many of the types of situations, dramatic incidents, and moral lessons to be found in the literature of the period.  The leader in this regard was William Hogarth, known for his painted series A Harlot’s Progress (engraved 1732), A Rake’s Progress (1733), and Marriage à la Mode (c. 1743).4  All of these series were engraved for wide distribution, with accompanying explanatory texts.


Hogarth even did one series that appeared exclusively in print form, Industry and Idleness (1747), a story of two young apprentices, one whose virtue is ultimately rewarded when he becomes a magistrate and Lord Mayor of London, the other who is drawn into a life of crime and who ends up hanging at Tyburn.  Emotions in Hogarth’s work can be intense, but his primary purpose is to expose the flaws of society rather than the redemptive power of feeling.  Nevertheless, thanks to his combination of narrative power, moral tone, and everyday settings, Hogarth’s influence on the subsequent imagery of Sensibility cannot be overestimated.


The “novel in pictures” remained popular especially in British art, although Hogarthian satire gradually gave way to the tenderness of Sensibility (Sorkin 158).  Toward the end of the century, James Northcote created a series of ten paintings entitled Diligence and Dissipation (painted in 1796, engraved by Thomas Gauguin 1796-97).  Northcote’s series is a kind of Industry and Idleness-meets-Pamela scenario, in which two housemaids discover, respectively, the rewards of virtue and hard work, and the inevitable doom of a life of irresponsibility and vice:  in the final scene, the “diligent” woman, on the way to her wedding to her employer, walks past the early grave of her “dissipated” counterpart (Brookner 152-53).


Thomas Gauguin, after James Northcote, Diligence and Dissipation:
The Good Girl Married to Her Master; The Wanton Laid in Her Grave


The alliterative title of this popular series and its tracing of the fates of two heroines make one wonder whether it could have been one of the influences on Austen.  Of course, Austen again refuses to be simplistic:  in Sense and Sensibility, it is difficult to tell which characters are being rewarded for their virtue, and which are being punished.  The two Elizas, mother and daughter, may well have been categorized by Austen’s society as wantons like Northcote’s “dissipated” housemaid, but Austen herself seems to leave as an open question the issue of their relative innocence or complicity in their respective fates.  Austen understands that a fine line can exist between a virtuous heroine and a wanton, as when Colonel Brandon observes a similarity of “‘temper and mind’” between Marianne and his (as yet unnamed) first love (57).  Although it is not literally true that Marianne goes to her wedding past the grave of the first Eliza, a case can be made that the former enjoys a successful fate similar to that of Northcote’s heroine, a comparable there-but-for-the-grace-of-God (and the grace of a sympathetic author) moment.


What has happened in between Hogarth and Northcote that enabled moralizing genre painting to turn from satire to sentiment?  Undoubtedly, the major influence in this regard is the work of the French painter Jean-Baptiste Greuze (1725-1805), who more than anyone else developed and popularized an imagery of Sensibility.5


Greuze specialized particularly in two types of subject matter:  images of Pamela- or Clarissa-like young women experiencing moments of emotional distress, usually implying a loss of innocence, and multi-figural domestic scenes intended to illustrate moral lessons through heightened emotions.  Today, Greuze’s work is often dismissed as mawkish, even manipulative, but in his time his critical and popular success was enormous; at the Salons (the public exhibitions held nearly every year by the Academy of Painting and Sculpture in Paris), his pictures “literally moved beholders to tears” (Fried 55).  Greuze’s skills as a painter and draughtsman are without question, but his work was especially celebrated for its “literary” content.  Philip Conisbee’s statement about one of the artist’s earliest successes, known as L’Accordée de village [The Marriage Contract] (1761) could apply to most of Greuze’s work:  “To a public accustomed to reading a picture and susceptible to the emotional tenor of the contemporary sentimental novel, such a ‘novel in paint’ had an appeal that was both immediate and sustained.  Moreover, Greuze presented his audience with new stories, devised by himself and expressed with all the clarity—and at times the declamation—of the theatre” (Conisbee 97).


Jean-Bapstiste Greuze, L’Accordée de village [The Marriage Contract] (1761). Musée du Louvre


The key to this success was Greuze’s ability to ennoble his subjects by combining the humble domestic situations and middle- and lower-class characters of genre painting with the grand gestures and heightened and intensified expressions of what was broadly called “history painting,” then considered the highest form of art (Nigro 9ff.).  History painting, in Conisbee’s words, represents “the actions of the heroes of humanity, at moments of moral or historical significance, which might be exemplars for the more common run of men” (14).


Although Austen avoids both the excessive sentimentalizing of her characters and the simplistic use of them as moral exemplars, she shares with Greuze the idea that “the more common run” of men—and women—could be given heroic stature even in everyday situations.  This mixing of genres reinforced visually the emphasis placed by the proponents of Sensibility upon the presumed virtue and honesty of the humble (as opposed to the folly and vanity of the great).  Austen may herself satirize this sentimentalizing of poverty—the self-admittedly “expensive” Willoughby’s effusions about Barton Cottage, and Elinor’s sardonic response to them (72ff.), for example—but are Austen’s own preferences for the country over the town, for the honest over the sophisticated, really so far from the values of Greuze and his admirers?


Where Austen and Greuze differ is in the depiction of physical manifestations of Sensibility.  For Greuze, blatant displays of emotion are an outward sign of innate goodness; Austen, on the other hand, makes a distinction between Marianne’s visible emotionalism and Elinor’s stoicism.  While most of the characters in Sense and Sensibility can read Marianne’s emotional state from her outward appearance, even Marianne, who knows Elinor best, cannot see the inner turmoil that is afflicting her beloved sister.  This dichotomy between obvious emotionalism and genuine but little-displayed feeling cannot be attributed solely to the differences between Greuze’s iconic medium and the literary possibilities available to Austen; it is also attributable to Austen’s understanding that sincere feeling is not always so clearly manifested.


It is virtually impossible to prove whether Austen was aware of Greuze’s work; that she was aware of contemporary art is demonstrable, as we know from her viewing of Benjamin West’s Christ Healing the Sick in 1811 (Le Faye 184) and Christ Rejected in 1813 (Nokes 449), as well as her visits to the exhibitions in Spring Gardens and the British Institution in 1813.  Austen may have known Greuze’s work through engravings, and she must have been familiar with the work of his British admirers and imitators.  Among the latter were major artists like Sir Joshua Reynolds (Brookner 150) and Romney, who visited Greuze in Paris in 1790 (Brookner 129-30).  Artists whose work was particularly influenced by Greuze include Francis Wheatley, William Redmore Bigg, George Morland and the aforementioned James Northcote.  Thanks to Janine Barchas’s important research on Austen’s use of artists’ names in her fiction (including “Reynolds” and “George Morland”), we can be quite certain that she knew their work (Barchas 146; 150-52).  Thus, Austen must have encountered the Greuzian type of moralizing, sentimental narrative painting in some form.


Distressed innocence


Greuze’s images of beautiful young women absorbed in sorrowing emotional states and seemingly unaware of a beholder’s presence (Fried 57ff.) were highly regarded and widely imitated at the time.  Contemporaries often attributed the grief of these figures to loss of innocence and/or disappointment in love.  Although modern audiences can find these images excessively sentimental as well as disturbingly and inappropriately erotic, they were the perfect expression of the Sensibility movement’s fascination with the spectacle of innocence in distress.  In most cases, these young women lean, as Romney’s Sensibility would do later, in a pose expressive of both yearning and physical delicacy.  Prominent examples in Greuze’s work include Une Jeune Fille qui a cassé son miroir [The Broken Mirror] (c. 1762-63); Le Tendre ressouvenir [The Inconsolable Widow] (1763); and Jeune Fille qui pleure son oiseau mort [Young Girl Weeping Over Her Dead Pet Bird] (1765).6


Jean-Baptiste Greuze, Une Jeune Fille qui a cassé son miroir
[The Broken Mirror] (c. 1762-63). Wallace Collection


There are several such suffering young women in Sense and Sensibility, including the two Elizas, mother and daughter, and of course, Marianne Dashwood.  As we shall see, whenever Marianne is in an extreme state of emotional and physical turmoil, she can be beyond words, becoming instead the centerpiece of a visual Greuzian tableau.  Nowhere in the novel is this truer than in the scene that depicts her weeping over Willoughby’s letters after his rejection of her (Volume II, Chapter Seven).  Throughout this scene, Marianne’s body language—whether Austen intends to do so or not—continually evokes Greuzian figures of distraught young women.


When Elinor comes to look after her sister after the latter has received Willoughby’s last letter, she finds Marianne


stretched on the bed, almost choked by grief, one letter in her hand, and two or three others lying by her.  Elinor drew near, but without saying a word; and seating herself on the bed, took her hand, kissed her affectionately several times, and then gave way to a burst of tears, which at first was scarcely less violent than Marianne’s.  The latter, though unable to speak, seemed to feel all the tenderness of this behaviour, and after some time thus spent in joint affliction, she put all the letters into Elinor’s hands; and then covering her face with her handkerchief, almost screamed with agony. (182)


This tableau, in which the two sisters do not exchange a word, is presented by the narrator without apparent irony.  Marianne’s suffering and Elinor’s empathy are portrayed with absolute sincerity.  Still, this scene incorporates several of the motifs that are also to be found in the work of Greuze and his followers, signaling visually the emotional import of the scene to the reader.


Figures (usually women) reading letters (assumed to be love letters) are a common subject for seventeenth-century Dutch genre painters like Johannes Vermeer and Gerard Ter Borch.  French and British art collectors of the eighteenth century were devoted to Dutch art of the Golden Age, which in turn influenced artists of their own time like Marguerite Gérard and Michel Garnier, who adopted the letter reading motif.  Perhaps the most Marianne-like of these late eighteenth-century letter readers, however, appears in Lady Reading the Letters of Héloïse and Abelard by the Greuze follower Augustin Bernard d’Agesci (c. 1780):  the tragic story of the famed medieval lovers has inspired teary eyes and an apparently bittersweet near-swooning in a woman whose emotional state makes her, like Marianne, careless of her appearance.7


Augustin Bernard d’Agesci, Lady Reading the Letters of
Héloïse and Abelard
(c. 1780). Art Institute of Chicago


Covering the face to hide extreme emotion, as Marianne does in the passage quoted above, is also a common motif in Greuze’s work, particularly in his multi-figural compositions, to be discussed further below.  This is a motif with a long history in art; in Anne Leonard’s words, “In painting, a classic example . . . is The Sacrifice of Iphigenia by Timanthes (a lost work known chiefly by its description in Pliny’s Natural History), in which the artist, having already expended the full range of tragic expressions on the other figures, was left with nothing further for Agamemnon—Iphigenia’s father and the most grief-stricken figure—except to cover his face with his hands” (23).  Later in Volume II, Chapter Seven, Marianne is described as “seated at the foot of the bed, with her head leaning against one of its posts” (190).  The motif of a figure leaning, weakened but not completely overwhelmed by her intense sorrow, also recalls Greuze’s distraught women.


Although this scene represents Marianne’s most notable appearance as a Greuzian heroine, some of the same visual motifs reappear in regard to her character at later points in the novel.  Looking in on Marianne again, Elinor finds her “as she expected, in her own room, leaning, in silent misery, over the small remains of a fire” (197).  Even later in the novel, in response to the “cold insolence of Mrs. Ferrars’s general behaviour to her sister . . . and urged by a strong impulse of affectionate sensibility,” Marianne whispers encouraging words to Elinor, but then “could say no more; her spirits were quite overcome, and hiding her face on Elinor’s shoulder, she burst into tears” (236).  Once again, when words fail the usually articulate Marianne, she displays her feelings visually, like a Greuze character, by leaning wanly, hiding her face, and weeping.


Domestic dramas


The other area of subject matter that made Greuze’s reputation was the scene of heightened emotional drama in a domestic setting, usually (though not always) involving middle- and lower-class families.  This trend began with the painter’s earliest successes, such as Un Père de famille expliquant la Bible à ses enfants [Father Reading the Bible to His Children] (1755) and the aforementioned Marriage Contract and continued through to the more intense and (literally as well as figuratively) darker works of his later years.  Dubbed peinture morale (moral painting) by such approving critics as Denis Diderot, this combination of tender or high-flown sentiment with humble settings was seen as the perfect antidote to the perceived artifice, frivolity, and immorality of the work of such artists as François Boucher and Jean-Honoré Fragonard—what we now call the Rococo.


Once again, these images were celebrated for their literary qualities as well as their promotion of moral values; the two concepts were considered to be linked, as though sheer aesthetic delight in the visual qualities of painting needed to be superseded by the intellectual and moral weight of a stirring but down-to-earth tale.  Greuze, his French followers, and his British imitators all consciously played up the literary aspect of their work, with long, explanatory titles, or lengthy descriptions in the exhibition catalogues or on plaques placed next to their paintings, which were often incorporated into the engravings of the works (Myrone 83).


Diderot also argued that something similar was needed on the stage.  Feeling that both classical tragedy and the comedy types established by Molière had become exhausted, he argued for a new type of theatre, which he dubbed drame bourgeois.  To prove his point, Diderot wrote two examples of this genre, Le Fils naturel, written and performed in 1757, and Le Pere de famille, written in 1758, and first performed in 1761 (Brookner 30ff).  Like Austen’s novels, the drame bourgeois combines domestic settings and characters with a greater ability to shade emotionally from light to dark than was afforded by traditional literary genres.  “Drama,” neither tragedy nor comedy but partaking of both, could combine middle-class settings and characters with heightened emotions and speeches—like Greuze’s domestic genre scenes, and doubtless influenced by them.


That there was a connection between the drame bourgeois and the visual arts is confirmed by Diderot’s penchant for freezing his characters into elaborately laid out tableaux at moments of high emotional pitch.  Diderot’s theatrical tableaux (and indeed the posings of Lady Hamilton alluded to earlier) can be seen as the forerunners of those tableaux vivants so loved by the Victorians.  This tendency was not confined to French theatre:  the final moments of Elizabeth Inchbald’s Lovers’ Vows (a play that, as Mansfield Park attests, Austen obviously knew well) finds its characters forming themselves into a tableau, carefully described in the text, of moving familial reconciliation:


Frederick throws himself on his knees by the other side of Agatha—She clasps Frederick in her arms.—Amelia is placed on the side of the Baron attentively viewing Agatha—Anhalt stands on the side of Frederick with his hands gratefully raised to heaven. The curtain slowly drops. (240)


An engraving of this final scene accompanied the text in early editions of the play.


Greuze even attempted his own “novel in pictures”, a planned series of twenty-six canvases entitled Bazile et Thibaut, ou les deux éducations [Bazile and Thibaut, or Two Kinds of Education].  This was to be a story not unlike (and certainly influenced by) Hogarth’s Industry and Idleness, in which Bazile, blessed with both a virtuous nature and a loving family, rises to great prominence, and Thibaut, born bad and shipped out to a wet nurse by his uncaring relatives, is ultimately destroyed by a life of crime.  Greuze wrote out an elaborately detailed scenario for this series (dating from the 1760s though not published until 1861), but the paintings were never even begun, and only a handful of drawings can be securely associated with this project.  One such drawing (1769) illustrates the touching scene of Bazile’s departure from home to seek his fortune and help his family.  Greuze’s lengthy verbal description gives the flavor of the complex “novelistic” layout of each scene:


Young Bazile leaves the paternal home and receives his father’s blessing.  The scene takes place in a ground-floor room.  The father is seated on a chair close to the window; his son arrives in traveling dress.  He falls to his knees before his father.  The father places his left hand on his shoulder, saying:  “Go and prosper!  Your father blesses you.”  The mother, standing, raises her hands to heaven and appears to be saying:  “Dear Lord, protect his youth!”  His younger sister, leaning on the fireplace, with her head in her hand, cries at this moment of separation from her brother.  The half-open door permits seeing the horse that will take him to his destination.8


Greuze’s explorations of “family values” can run the gamut of emotions, again exploring many of the same themes of Sensibility that Austen examines in her novel.  Greuze celebrates the euphoria of motherhood in La Mère bien-aimée [The Beloved Mother] (1769), in which a mother is encircled by her many children à la Lady Middleton (and which received an Elinor Dashwood-like sardonic response from the intellectual Madame Geoffrin, who dubbed it a “fricassée d’enfants” [123]).  Greuze’s work can also incorporate angry women, bent like Mrs. Ferrars on the destruction of the happiness of others, whether of the lower classes (La Belle-mère [The Mother-in-Law], 1781) or the more well-to-do, as in La Femme colère [The Angry Woman] (c. 1785), which shows a raging woman sweeping into an elegant interior, to the terror of a pair of young lovers, and a group of onlookers.


Although Greuze’s followers rarely went in for anything this disturbingly extreme, their compositions became more complicated and emotionally varied, with detailed scenarios requiring novel-like descriptions in the Salon catalogues.  In 1777, one of Greuze’s most important French followers, Étienne Aubry, exhibited a painting entitled Le Mariage rompu [The Interrupted Wedding],9 with the following description in the Salon catalogue:


A young man and a girl are ready to receive the nuptial blessing.  As the priest is writing out the deed, a woman arrives, preceded by a bailiff who presents the priest with an objection and a promise of marriage.  The woman throws herself at the young man’s feet and tries to soften his heart, by showing him two children, the fruit of their secret love.  The husband-to-be, seeing his intended faint in her mother’s arms, rushes to her assistance and begs pardon for his perfidy.  The young man’s father, touched by the sight of his ill-fated descendants, turns his son’s gaze towards them.  Feeling his heart break at the sight of them, the son yields and paternal love triumphs.  (trans. Barker 227-28)


As Emma Barker notes, “No critic viewed the complexity of this scenario as a deficiency” (228).


Étienne Aubry, Le Mariage rompu [The Interrupted Marriage] (1777). Private collection


All of this complicated action and overwrought melodrama might seem far removed from Austen’s irony and understatement; but Sense and Sensibility does contain such a scene, not one the reader witnesses directly but one described in Greuze-like (or Aubry-like) detail.  I refer to Volume III, Chapter One:  Edward and Lucy’s engagement has just been discovered, and all Hell has broken loose in Harley-street.  Mrs. Jennings describes the scene, which she herself has heard about second hand from the family doctor:


“a terrible scene took place, for Lucy was come to them by that time, little dreaming what was going on.  Poor soul, I pity her.  And I must say, that she was used very hardly; for your sister scolded like any fury, and soon drove her into a fainting fit.  Nancy, she fell upon her knees, and cried bitterly; and your brother, he walked about the room, and said he did not know what to do.  Mrs. Dashwood declared they should not stay a minute longer in the house, and your brother was forced to go down upon his knees too, to persuade her to let them stay till they had packed up their clothes.  Then she fell into hysterics again, and he was so frightened that he would send for Mr. Donavan, and Mr. Donavan found the house in all this uproar.  The carriage was at the door ready to take my poor cousins away . . .”  (259)


Here Mrs. Jennings sounds like a hilarious, homespun parody of an entry in a Salon catalogue.  Many of the characters and reactions of a Greuze or Aubry painted drama are present:  the raging “fury,” the fainting woman, figures kneeling, imploring, and weeping, even the carriage waiting at the door, but the way in which this tableau is narrated transforms it from Greuzian domestic drama into slapstick farce.  Austen brilliantly satirizes several things at once in this passage:  the Greuzian sentimental tableau, the over-the-top scenarios devised by painters, and the breathless tale-spinning of a practiced gossip.  The fact that the scene involves four of the least likeable characters in the novel only adds to the sense of Schadenfreude.  Did it all really happen like this?  Mrs. Jennings is repeating what she has heard from the doctor, and we all know how stories can become embroidered in the retelling.  One cannot help but wonder whether her account has been embellished with details of scenes she may have witnessed in painted or engraved domestic dramas.


Deathbed scenes


An important subgenre of Greuze’s domestic imagery is the representation of familial reactions to the death of one of their own, especially of fathers.  These end-of-life scenes provided an opportunity for an artist to represent a great variety of extreme emotional responses.  Greuze’s depictions of deathbed scenes include one of his first successes, La Piété filiale [Filial Piety] (also known as The Paralytic, 1763) and a group of related drawings of 1769:  La Mort d’un père, regretté par ses enfants [The Death of a Father, Regretted by His Children]; its counterpoise La Mort d’un père dénaturé, abandonné de ses enfants [The Death of a Cruel Father, Abandoned By His Children]; and L’Avare et ses enfants [The Miser and His Children], in which the hitherto-deprived survivors grab any treasure they can, even as the scarcely-mourned patriarch expires.


In many ways, the culmination of Greuze’s exploration of the subject is the pair of pendants under the general title La Malédiction paternelle [The Father’s Curse]:  Le Fils ingrat [The Ungrateful Son] and Le Fils puni [The Punished Son] (1778), a visual novel in two large volumes, rather than a number of chapters.10  The paintings tell the story of a son who incurs his father’s curse for leaving home to join the army (how things have changed since the gentle tears over the departure of Bazile!); in the second painting, the now-crippled son returns home to find that his father has just died, too late for reconciliation and forgiveness.  Once again, Greuze’s followers usually went in for more tender versions of this subject matter, such as Pierre-Alexandre Wille’s Derniers moments d’une épouse chérie [Final Moments of a Beloved Wife] (1785).11


Sense and Sensibility opens with two deaths, if not exactly deathbed scenes; as we get to know the novel’s characters fairly quickly, the reader (or, at least, the reader steeped in the iconography of Sensibility) can nonetheless visualize the Greuzian tableau of the death of the patriarch Mr. Henry Dashwood, even without seeing it.  Mrs. Dashwood and her three daughters will cling tearfully to one another; on the other hand, although one cannot imagine John and Fanny Dashwood literally making a smash and grab raid on the spot like the grasping relatives of Greuze’s miser, their reprehensibly self-serving postmortem conversation (8ff.) amounts to a verbalization of the same idea.


Once again, though, it is Marianne who becomes the centerpiece of a tableau of this moving subject with the delirium and near-death experience that mark the most harrowing scenes in the novel.  The power of this part of the narrative comes from its combination of the distressed heroine and the heightened domestic drama, that is to say both of the major themes explored above.  It is true that there is hardly a moment when all of the other characters are gathered around Marianne’s bedside at the same time, thus not forming a single tableau; but it seems as though everyone is preparing themselves for a scene reminiscent of Wille’s Final Moments of a Beloved Wife.  It is not surprising that at one point Elinor, the accomplished artist in the family, “picture[s] to herself her suffering mother arriving too late to see this darling child, or to see her rational” (312).  The sense of anxiety over the too-late arrival is like something right out of Greuze.


Of course, Austen subverts melodramatic expectations by allowing Marianne to live and learn from this experience.  As Penny Gay observes, comparing Marianne to tragic stage characters:  “Her illness threatens her with death, as we expect of a tragedy heroine.  Elinor, Colonel Brandon, Mrs. Jennings, the doctor—principal onlookers—all expect it” (40).  One might add that it is equally likely that the onlookers expect Marianne to die because they have been trained as much by the pictures they have seen as by the novels and plays they have read.  Emily Auerbach states:  “Sense and Sensibility leaves no doubt that Austen could have written a poignant deathbed scene, with Mrs. Dashwood and Elinor consumed with grief at the side of a lifeless Marianne, with a power that would have rivaled the ability of Charles Dickens to describe Little Nell’s final moments or Louisa May Alcott to describe the loss of Beth March” (125).  Auerbach’s comparisons inevitably lead us to Victorian literary examples, but the visual equivalents available in Austen’s lifetime can provide us with an inspiration closer to home.  Sense and Sensibility is not, of course, the only Austen novel to include a not-quite deathbed experience (Tom Bertram in Mansfield Park and Louisa Musgrove in Persuasion come to mind); but it is significant that such a tableau should be included in a novel that incorporates so many other scenes that could be taken from the visual imagery of Sensibility.


Austen and the iconography of Sensibility


Austen is not usually thought of as a visual writer, and although we can identify a few works of art that we know she would have experienced directly, she undoubtedly saw many more that we cannot identify with absolute certainty.  Nonetheless, the inclusion of so many scenes in Sense and Sensibility that engage with some of the favored themes of the imagery of Sensibility strongly indicates her awareness of that imagery and her expectation that her readers will be aware of these connections.  More important, Austen’s thoughtful, sometimes sincere, sometimes playful incorporation of this iconography into her novel allows her to include it as part of her examination of the entire culture of Sensibility, in its artistic as well as its literary and philosophical aspects.


Austen, her characters, and her earliest readers were part of a culture that recognized the physical manifestations of emotional responses, in part because they had been conditioned by the visual representations of those responses in art.  The characters in the novel respond to some of the events they witness or hear about as if they were talking about paintings or prints they may have seen, as well as novels they may have read.  Austen’s absorption of the art of her time may not be explicitly stated in her work, but given her famous powers of observation, there is no question that she knew what she was looking at, as well as what it all meant.





1. Hayley himself was able to acquire the original painting (Hayley’s Life of George Romney 121-22), which was sold at Christie’s in March 1989 (Ittershagen 137n.).


2. Romney also represented Emma as Serena, one of the heroines of Hayley’s poem (Kidson 165).


3. The paintings are now divided among the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge; the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne; and the Tate Britain.


4. The original paintings of A Harlot’s Progress are believed to have been destroyed; A Rake’s Progress is in Sir John Soane’s Museum, London, and Marriage à la Mode in the National Gallery, London.


5. The paintings by Greuze mentioned in this essay are in the following locations:  L’Accordée de village [The Marriage Contract] in the Louvre, Paris; Une Jeune Fille qui a cassé son miroir [The Broken Mirror] and Le Tendre ressouvenir [The Inconsolable Widow] in the Wallace Collection, London; Jeune Fille qui pleure son oiseau mort [Young Girl Weeping Over Her Dead Pet Bird] in the National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh; Un Père de famille expliquant la Bible à ses enfants [Father Reading the Bible to His Children], private collection, Paris; drawing of Bazile’s departure from home, Art Institute of Chicago; La Mère bien-aimée [The Beloved Mother], Laborde Collection, Madrid; La Belle-mère [The Mother-in-Law], known today only through engravings; La Femme colère [The Angry Woman], Metropolitan Museum, New York; La Piété filiale [Filial Piety/The Paralytic], Hermitage, St. Petersburg; La Mort d’un père, regretté par ses enfants [The Death of a Father, Regretted by His Children], Louvre, Paris; La Mort d’un père dénaturé, abandonné de ses enfants [The Death of a Cruel Father, Abandoned By His Children], Musée Greuze, Tournus; L’Avare et ses enfants [The Miser and His Children], Courtauld Institute of Art, London; La Malédiction paternelle [The Father’s Curse], composed of Le Fils ingrat [The Ungrateful Son] and Le Fils puni [The Punished Son], Louvre, Paris.


6. The latter painting provoked a palpitating response from Denis Diderot that modern readers can find uncomfortably sexual in tone (see Fried 57ff.), proving that the association of the emotive with the erotic in this imagery long predates Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s notorious interpretation of Marianne Dashwood’s emotional distress.


7. The Art Institute of Chicago acquired this painting as a Greuze, but Rosenberg and Bailey were able to prove the definitive attribution to the little-known Bernard d’Agesci.


8. See Brookner 158 for the original French text.  The English translation is my own.


9. Le Mariage rompu [The Interrupted Wedding] is in a private collection.


10. These paintings are based on two drawings from the peak of Greuze’s interest in deathbed scenes in the 1760s.


11. Pierre-Alexandre Wille’s Derniers moments d’une épouse chérie [Final Moments of a Beloved Wife] is in the Musée de Cambrai.



Works Cited


Alexander David.  “A Reluctant Communicator: George Romney and the Print Market with a Chronological List of Plates after George Romney.”  Those Delightful Regions of Imagination: Essays on George Romney.  Ed. Alex Kidson.  New Haven: Yale UP, 2002.  251-88.

Auerbach, Emily.  Searching for Jane Austen.  Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 2004.

Austen, Jane.  Sense and Sensibility.  Ed. R. W. Chapman.  3rd ed.  Oxford: Oxford UP, 1933.

Barchas, Janine.  “Artistic Names in Austen’s Fiction: Cameo Appearances by Prominent Painters.”  Persuasions 31 (2009): 145-62.

Barker, Emma.  Greuze and the Painting of Sentiment.  New York: Cambridge UP, 2005.

Brookner, Anita.  Greuze: The Rise and Fall of an Eighteenth-Century Phenomenon.  New York: Graphic Society, 1972.

Conisbee, Philip.  Painting in Eighteenth-Century France.  Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1981.

Fried, Michael.  Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and Beholder in the Age of Diderot.  Berkeley: U of California P, 1980.

Gay, Penny.  Jane Austen and the Theatre.  New York: Cambridge UP, 2002.

Hayley, William.  The Life of George Romney, Esq.  Chichester: Mason, 1809.

______.  The Triumphs of Temper, 1781.

Inchbald, Elizabeth.  Lovers’ VowsFive Romantic Plays, 1768-1821.  Ed. Paul Baines and Edward Burns.  Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000.  185-242.

Ittershagen, Ulrike.  Lady Hamiltons Attitüden.  Mainz: Zabern, 1999.

Kidson, Alex.  George Romney: 1734-1802.  Princeton: Princeton UP, 2002.

Le Faye, Deirdre.  Jane Austen: A Family Record.  Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2004.

Leonard, Anne.  “On Feeling and Being Moved.”  The Tragic Muse: Art and Emotion, 1700-1900.  Chicago: Smart Museum of Art, 2011.  11-35.

Myrone, Martin.  “The Sublime as Spectacle: The Transformation of Ideal Art at Somerset House.”  Art on the Line: The Royal Academy Exhibitions at Somerset House, 1780-1836.  Ed. David H. Solkin.  New Haven : Yale UP, 2001.  77-91.

Nigro, Jeffrey Allan.  “Jean-Baptiste Greuze and the Elevation of Genre Painting.”  MA thesis U of Virginia, 1986.

Nokes, David.  Jane Austen: A Life.  New York: Farrar, 1997.

Rosenberg, Pierre, and Bailey, Colin B.  “Not Greuze, but Bernard d’Agesci.”  The Burlington Magazine 143 (Apr. 2001): 204-11.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky.  “Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl.”  Critical Inquiry 17.4 (1991): 818-37.

Solkin, David H.  “Crowds and Connoisseurs: Looking at Genre Painting at Somerset House.”  Art on the Line: The Royal Academy Exhibitions at Somerset House, 1780-1836.  Ed. David H. Solkin.  New Haven: Yale UP, 2001.  157-71.

Todd, Janet.  Sensibility: An Introduction.  New York: Methuen, 1986.


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