In Victorian England the popularity of sentimental genre pictures, filled with incident and detail, is well established. This fascination with what were called "cabinet domestic pictures" was in part a reflection of the growth and patronage of the middle class, for such a narrative art found a sympathetic and ready market among buyers. Accordingly, recognizable truth of sentiment - whether of pathos or humor - was a paramount consideration for the acceptance of this genre of art.
Within this "truth of sentiment", one of the most universal themes in 19th Century Britain was that of the child and in many respects the Victorian era (1837-1901) heralded a golden age of childhood. Although children were often important protagonists in Victorian literature and art, adult values clearly adult values clearly underlie the material and reinforce prevailing social and domestic values. It was the proliferation of adult-like children that permeated the Victorian family life.
In art as in real life, there were strict boundaries between activities deemed suitable for girls and those that were acceptable for boys. While the mischievous boy was important in Victorian art and literature, the ill-behaved girl is seen infrequently. Even later in the century, when girls' lives became freer both in terms of educational and athletic possibilities, these stereotypes persisted.
The central girl in May I ? is the same model in Morgan's Royal Academy painting of 1885, Ring-A-Ring-A-Roses-Oh! (no. 32), of which a smaller version now hangs in the Townley Hall Museum and Art Gallery, Bumley, Lancashire. However, the garden setting with the bench is more reminiscent of his Royal Academy painting of 1900, The Hero of the Hour (no. 674). Additionally, the prominent boy dressed in the Gainsborough style suit also appears in Morgan's Royal Academy painting of 1903, Hunt the Slipper. May I ? is a phrase commonly used by British boys in order to invite girls for a dance. In viewing these paintings of children the viewer should remember that they were created almost exclusively for the enjoyment and emotions of adults.
We are grateful to Tery Parker for his assistance in preparing this catalogue entry.