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Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Sir Edwin Landseer

Monarch of the Glen, 1851, Sir Edwin Landseer
I've always defined a portrait as the image of anyone (or anything) that's important enough to someone to justify the cost or effort. People portraits are, of course the first thing that comes to mind, but there are also house portraits, car portraits, even boat portraits. But second only to people in the portrait business are pet portraits. Unlike people portraits, we who render images of beloved pets often do so without much thought as to their having any historical significance. Pets live for only a few years while people live for decades, yet both fade from memory in the absence of an archival pictorial representation. Although animals began to appear in seventeenth century Dutch painting, it wasn't until the nineteenth century, particularly in England, that men began commissioning painted portraits of individual pets. This is about the best pet portrait artist of that time.

Death of the Wild Bulll, 1833, Sir Edwin Landseer
Very few people, in this country at least, have not seen his work. If you've ever noticed the valiant stag making up the logo of the Hartford Group of insurance companies, you've seen the work of Sir Edwin Landseer. Though his 1851 masterpiece, Monarch of the Glen, is without doubt, his most famous painting, the vast majority of Landseer's work would be classified as pet portraits--mostly dogs, but sometimes cats, horses, deer, and an occasional prize bull, all with a distinctively Victorian flavor. That is not to say they're anything less than outstanding. His 1833, Death of the Wild Bull involves just such a portrait. A wealthy Lord Ossulston owned a herd of wild Chillgham cattle. He commissioned Landseer to paint a massive bull from that herd. The gamekeeper was assigned the task of shooting one so it could be stuffed and mounted for the artist to paint from except that in the process, the bull attacked, and but for the intercession of a courageous deer hound, the man would have been killed.  The painting depicts the scene, the hound and gamekeeper still winded, moments after Lord Ossulston himself brought down the mighty bull.

A Distinguished Member of the Humane Society,
1838, a Sir Edwin Landseer Newfoundland, the
breed which has taken the name, Landseer.
Edwin Henry Landseer was born in 1802, the youngest son of artist John Landseer. (With such a last name, one might expect him to paint landscapes.) Both his sisters, Jessica and Emma, as well as his brother, Thomas were also artists. His grandson, Sir Edwin Landseer Luytens later became one of England's most famous architects. We are today indebted to Thomas Landseer for having made etchings of his brother's works which; in large part, accounts for their continued popularity. A true child prodigy, some of Edwin's first paintings today hang in the South Kensington Museum. He was five years old at the time. By the time he was thirteen, he was exhibiting at the Royal Academy. He became a member at the age of twenty-four and later was elected its president. His paintings of a particular black and white Newfoundland caused the Landseer breed to be named for him. Though he painted animals of all types, it was his portraits of dogs and his ability to capture so much of their personality in human terms that made him famous. In 1842, Landseer received what may have been his most unusual commission. The Sixth Duke of Devonshire asked him to satirize the legal profession. In the painting, Laying down the Law (sometimes called Trial by Jury) Landseer caricatures Lord Lyndhurst, the Lord Chancellor (a judge), as a giant poodle presiding over other breeds representing various lawyers. The Duke's own pet spaniel is depicted as a cub reporter. No, it's not poker playing dogs, but it may well have inspired them.
Laying Down the Law, 1842, Sir Edwin Landseer

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