Painting alleviates anguish

August Friedrich Albrecht Schenck, Anguish, 1878

A mother has just lost her child; it is winter, and there’s no food. She knew he was in danger, she tried to feed him, she tried to keep him safe but in the end, after yet another bitter night, he succumbed. Her grief feels all the more real, all the more like ours, for being inarticulate and wordless; pure anguish. The crows are unbearably cruel. They gather when another is in agony; they sense the opportunity opened up by the problems of others. They are like the people we most fear – those who like it when we are miserable. The scene reminds us of a possibility we glimpse perhaps only in our own worst moments: that we won’t always be able to protect what we love, our children, our homes, our dignity… That they might win.

This painting is an unashamed example of a kind of art that sophisticated commentators feel rather awkward about. It is sentimental. That means, it doesn’t care too much about speaking directly to our hearts. It is a hasty, perhaps overhasty, attempt to get us to feel emotions that are nevertheless very important, in this case, compassion.

Though the painting stands on the edge of the worst kind of sentimentality, it arguably gets away with it. The artist, August Friedrich Albrecht Schenck, has made a memorial not so much to a dead lamb as to a crucial capacity: to empathise with the sorrows of others, to be the opposite of a crow. He has made a political picture too, not in the sense that it wants us to vote for this or that party, but because it wants to influence how we behave towards one another: it wants to increase our own ability to be, and feel, tender.