Over the course of the twentieth century, Victorian narrative painting became synonymous with sentimentality, melodrama, and the artificial evocation of emotion. This essay aims to complicate this familiar assessment by examining the role emotional effect played in aesthetic evaluations of some of the most popular modern life genre paintings of the 1850s to 1870s. I argue that the critical discourse on Victorian narrative painting was marked by a persistent skepticism about the role of feeling in aesthetic response—as excessively painful or obvious emotional impact marked the limit between artistic success and failure—and I locate these concerns within the physical and social exhibition culture of the Royal Academy.