Edwin Henry Landseer: 19th-Century Britain's Foremost Animal Painter

Many of us know Sir Edwin Henry Landseer (7 March 1802 – 1 October 1873) as the sculptor of the four magnificent bronze lions that guard Nelson’s column in Trafalgar Square.  During the mid-19th century, however, Landseer’s fame derived from his unrivalled talent as an animal painter.

A Distinguished Member of the Humane Society exhibited 1838 by Sir Edwin Henry Landseer 1802-1873
A Distinguished Member of the Humane Society, 1838.
by Sir Edwin Henry Landseer
(Tate Collection, London)

From the upper echelons of Victorian society to the working middle-class, there were few who were not familiar with Landseer’s work.  He owed much of his success with the general public to the efforts of his two brothers.  Talented draughtsman in their own right, they made engravings and etchings of Landseer’s paintings which sold at a fraction of the cost of the originals.  As a result, it was not uncommon to find a reproduction of one of Landseer’s paintings gracing the walls of a modest family dwelling in much the same way an original might be displayed in an upper-class drawing room.

Favourites, the Property of H.R.H. Prince George of Cambridge, 1834-1835 .
by Sir Edwin Henry Landseer
(Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT)

For the majority of his career, Landseer had royal patronage.  He painted many portraits of Queen Victoria’s pets over the years and, upon her marriage to Prince Albert, Landseer painted a picture of the queen herself.  He would go on to paint the royal children, often depicting them with the royal pets.

Landseer Queen Victoria
Queen Victoria and her Family at Windsor Castle, 1842.
by Sir Edwin Henry Landseer
(Royal Trust Collection)

The critics of Landseer’s day accused him of cheap sentimentality and of “pandering to vulgar tastes.”  Even today, a current entry at Britannica.com states, rather severely, that Landseer’s “later works were marred…by anthropomorphism that lapsed into sentimentality.”  The chief criticism seems to be that Landseer has given the animals in his paintings human traits such as courage, loyalty, devotion, sorrow, and grief.

Landseer Old Shepherd's Chief Mourner
Old Shepherd’s Chief Mourner, 1837.
by Edwin Henry Landseer
(Victoria and Albert Museum, London)
Landseer Self-Portrait
Edwin Henry Landseer Self-Portrait, 1840.

These criticisms did nothing to diminish Landseer’s popularity.  When he died on October 1, 1873, all of London marked his death.  Flags flew at half mast, people lined the streets, and the lions in Trafalgar square were hung with wreathes.  Landseer was buried at St. Paul’s Cathedral.  Punch eulogized him with a poem that read, in part:

His art has been sound teacher to his age;
Whether of sympathy ‘twixt man and brute,
Or lessons drawn from Nature’s wholesome page,
And pleasure that in truth has deepest root.

Today Landseer’s paintings hang in some of the finest museums in the world.  I present to you below a collection of some of his most famous and controversial work.

Landseer A Highland Breakfast
A Highland Breakfast, 1834.
by Edwin Henry Landseer
(Victoria and Albert Museum, London)

This painting is an example of one of Landseer’s very popular storytelling pictures. The setting is a Highland shepherd’s hut. A group of dogs are gathered round their breakfast – a tub of hot milk. It appears that the three dogs behind are bickering over who gets to eat first. While they argue, the two smaller dogs in front (one of whom is a nursing mother with a few pups) are drinking their fill. Completely oblivious to any canine turmoil, the shepherd’s wife sits nearby, nursing her baby.

Attachment by Edwin Henry Landseer
Attachment, 1829.
by Edwin Henry Landseer
(Saint Louis Art Museum, St. Louis, MO)

According to the Saint Louis Art Museum, this picture is based on the true story of an 1805 mountain climber who fell to his death while hiking in England’s Lake district. “His body was not discovered for three months and all that time, his faithful terrier stayed by his side.”

The Shrew Tamed by Landseer
The Shrew Tamed, 1861.
by Edwin Henry Landseer

Exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1861, the catalogue described this painting as a portrait of noted equestrienne Ann Gilbert demonstrating the taming techniques of the famous American horse whisperer John Solomon Rarey.  The critics were not convinced.  The Times wrote: “The lady reclines against his glossy side, smiling in the consciousness of female supremacy, and playfully patting the jaw that could tear her into tatters, with the back of her small hand. For horses read husbands, and the picture is a provocation to rebellion addressed to the whole sex…”

Even more controversial, there were those who believed that Landseer was paying homage to the famous courtesan Catherine Walters. She was known as a “pretty horse-breaker” and when she went riding in Rotten Row, crowds gathered to watch her. In their review of “The Shrew Tamed,” Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine wrote: “We hope it will now be felt by Sir Edwin Landseer and his friends that the intrusion of ‘pretty-horse-breakers’ on the walls of the Academy is not less to be regretted than their presence in Rotten Row.”

A Jack in Office by Edwin Henry Landseer
A Jack in Office, 1830.
by Edwin Henry Landseer
Victoria and Albert Museum, London

This is one of Landseer’s best-known works and the first of what the Masters of Art series calls his “canine burlesques of human life.”  A dealer in horse meat has left his wheelbarrow in an alley under the guardianship of an overweight cur – the titular ‘Jack in Office” (slang for a self-important, minor official). The thin, clearly starving, neighborhood dogs are drawn by the tempting smell and cautiously approach, but none dare to touch the meat that Jack is watching over.

The Arab Tent by Edwin Henry Landseer, 1866.
The Arab Tent, 1866.
by Edwin Henry Landseer
(The Wallace Collection, London)

According to The Wallace Collection, this painting is Landseer’s response to “fashionable Orientalist themes.” It depicts an Arabian mare and foal, two greyhounds, and two monkeys, all snuggly settled in and around an Arab tent. The Wallace Collection points out that the “higher up the picture, the more intelligent the animals depicted become.”

Saved, 1856.
Saved, 1856.
by Edwin Henry Landseer

In this painting, Landseer depicts a famous Newfoundland-St. Bernard named Milo who lived with the keeper of the Egg Rock Lighthouse in Maine.  Milo was credited with rescuing several children from drowning.  Newfoundland’s were featured in many of Landseer’s paintings and he popularized the  black and white variety of the breed  – a variety which now bears his name.

Mimi Matthews is the author of The Pug Who Bit Napoleon: Animal Tales of the 18th and 19th Centuries (to be released by Pen and Sword Books in November 2017).  She researches and writes on all aspects of nineteenth century history—from animals, art, and etiquette to fashion, beauty, feminism, and law. 

Sources  

Campton, James Stuart. “Landseer.” Young Idea, Volume 16 – 17 Jan. 1903: n. pag. Web.

Donald, Diana. Picturing Animals in Britain: 1750-1850. New Haven: Yale U, 2007. Print.

Greenwod, Grace. Victoria, Queen of England. London: n.p., 1883. 17 Dec. 2002. Web. 14 Apr. 2015.

Landseer, Sir Edwin Henry. Engravings from Landseer: Reproduced in Heliotype. Boston: James R. Osgood, 1881. Web.

Masters in Art: A Series of Illustrated Monographs, Volumes 4 – 5. Boston: Bates & Guild, 1904. Web. 14 Apr. 2015.

“The Royal Academy and the Water-Colour Societies.” Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine Aug. 1861: 211. Web.

“The Shrew Tamed.” The Times [London] 4 May 1861, Issue 23924: 12. Web.

“Sir Edwin Landseer.” The Encyclopaedia Britannica. N.p., 15 Aug. 2013. Web. 13 Apr. 2015.

Snow, Edward Rowe. The Lighthouses of New England. Beverly, MA: Commonwealth Editions, 2002. Print.

St. Louis Art Museum. “Attachment by Sir Edwin Henry Landseer.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch. N.p., 9 Aug. 2012. Web. 14 Apr. 2015.


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The Pug Who Bit Napoleon:
Animal Tales of the 18th and 19th Centuries

From elaborate Victorian cat funerals to a Regency era pony who took a ride in a hot air balloon, Mimi Matthews shares some of the quirkiest and most poignant animal tales of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Find out more…

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6 Comments on "Edwin Henry Landseer: 19th-Century Britain’s Foremost Animal Painter"

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Angelyn
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I thoroughly enjoyed this post. Odd that a modern critic would look in askance after Landseer’s “sentimentalism.” I believe human traits are far more attributed to animals today than they were in Victorian times.

Mimi Matthews
Guest

Thanks for the comment, Angelyn! What you say is very true. For those of us with animals in our lives, I think we can see the traits of our own pets in Landseer’s paintings and we know the full range of emotions that pets are capable of. Unfortunately, there are many who still think that attributing any emotion to an animal is sentimentalism.

susana
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Love this post!

Mimi Matthews
Guest

Thank you, Susana! Whenever animals come up in a positive way in history or literature, I love it, too.

Judith Laik
Guest
Mimi, I missed this article when it was posted and just now saw it. Fascinating piece! I was somewhat familiar with Landseer’s work, but you have some paintings here that I hadn’t seen before. I think it’s mostly people with no familiarity with animals who say they don’t have human feelings. I’m most familiar with dogs, but I believe they share the full range of emotions that humans experience. You can’t live closely with them and not see indisputable evidence of that. I loved the story accompanying the terrier above who guarded the body of his dead master for three… Read more »
Mimi Matthews
Guest

Thank you for your lovely comment, Judith. I agree 100% about animals sharing the full range of human emotions. The tale of Greyfriars Bobby is a particularly poignant one. I love terriers, but they are stubborn little dogs. I wonder if that trait comes into play when they are grieving? They just won’t give up on their person, even when their person is gone.

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