Friday, 14 February 2014

Lessons from Edwin Landseer

This is a (partial) copy I have made of a painting by Edwin Landseer. The ultimate “pet portrait artist” of his day, Edwin Henry Landseer was a Victorian painter (1802 - 1873) especially famous for his animal paintings. He first exhibited work at the Royal Academy when he was 13 and became a Royal Academician at 18. Landseer was commissioned by Queen Victoria to paint her pets as well as by numerous others from the great and the good of Victorian society. Here is Landseer's original, called Dignity and Impudence
As you can see, I have left off the hoop and chain, because I do not like the idea of chaining up dogs so didn't want this feature in my version. Also, despite my best endeavours, I have been unable to capture the greenish cast of Landseer's work. Still, it has been an interesting exercise and I have learnt a lot: that Landseer worked in layers and with glazing for example as well as alla prima in the same painting: the kennel and dog on the left were definitely painted in layers. The little white dog on the right in one go with a few strokes of  a bristle brush. It would have been harder to discover this without trying to copy the work. 

The bloodhound is called Grafton and the Westie is Scratch. Both dogs belonged to Jacob Bell who commissioned him to paint this. It was completed in 1839. The picture's composition parodies the Dutch portrait tradition, whereby the subject is framed by a window, with an arm or hand extending over the edge, just as the bloodhound's paw hangs over the edge of the kennel. 

The end of Landseer’s life was sad as he suffered severe mental health problems, such that in 1872 his family asked he be declared insane. Landseer's death on 1 October 1873 was widely marked in England: shops and houses lowered their blinds, flags flew at half mast, the bronze lions at the base of Nelson’s Column were hung with wreaths, and large crowds lined the streets to watch his funeral cortege pass.  Landseer is buried in St Paul’s Cathedral. At his death, Landseer left behind three unfinished paintings, all on easels in his studio. It was his dying wish that his friend John Everett Millais should complete the paintings, which he did.

It is hard to imagine any painter of animals being so revered today - or any painter at all, really. Painting and animal paintings in particular are out of fashion. Dignity and Impudence is owned by the Tate but, as with many other “pet portraits” by Landseer and others, it is not on public display.

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