John Collier, Sentence of Death

Wolverhampton City Art Gallery

Date: 1908
Technique: Oil paint on canvas, 1295 x 1626 mm

John Collier was an artist who had made his reputation as a painter of popular and successful problem pictures like The Prodigal Daughter 1903, The Cheat 1905 and Mariage de Convenance 1907. His Academy exhibit of 1908, Sentence of Death, was ‘simultaneously the last to be taken seriously and the first to be the subject of overwhelming negative commentary’. Fletcher offers three main reasons for this. First, it features a man and his doctor where viewers expected to see a ‘fallen woman’: as one critic complained there was no ‘Wicked Aristocracy ... no study of gambling or marrying for money, no flashing eyes and yellow satin dresses’. Second, the doctor’s opinion is no longer ambiguous – this is a terminal illness – and no clear social or moral question is posed: the image fails to maintain the right level of indeterminacy, being too banal, or too obscure, for useful debate. But lastly, and perhaps most interestingly, Fletcher points out that critics repeatedly dismissed the picture, not just as ‘too literary’, but as too much like an advertisement. /Lisa Tickner, The Camden Town Murder and Tabloid Crime/

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