Tuesday, August 26, 2014

MWA XXVII: Landseer's Dog

This morning, I discovered on Twitter that it was #WorldDogDay (aka #NationalDogDay). I always wonder who comes up with these official declarations, especially considering I don't recall ever having celebrated this day before (and who wouldn't want to celebrate Dog Day!?). So this morning I celebrated by tweeting a few dog-themed paintings from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Chatsworth in Derbyshire, England (home of the Duke of Devonshire--and they tweeted back), and the work you see here from the Victoria and Albert Museum: The Old Shepherd's Chief Mourner, 1837, by Sir Edwin Landseer. A herding dog rests his head on the coffin of the shepherd who was his master, his empty chair in the background echoing the loss. You can almost hear the dog whimper in sadness from his expression and bodily position. The Romanticized rustic setting of the farmhouse or stable where the casket is set adds to the overall sadness of the painting. By today's standards, however, the sentimentality exuded by this painting is scoffed at by most who find the scene ridiculously saccharine, particularly because this was once accepted as a form of high art. When one thinks of dogs in art, what is the one picture everyone thinks of and laughs about as the height of bad taste? The infamous picture of dogs playing poker, of course. Admittedly, scenes such as that take anthropomorphism to a new extreme, but one shouldn't be so quick to dismiss all animal paintings because of that kitsch scene (which, perhaps important to note, was part of an advertisement scheme to sell cigars to men).

In the 19th century, the painter Landseeer was tremendously popular. His animal scenes were made into prints and distributed worldwide. He was the only British artist to win the Grand Medal of Honor at the 1855 Exposition Universelle in Paris, and this was in recognition of his contributions to animal painting. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were great patrons of Landseer, in part because Albert loved greyhounds and other dogs, and Landseer was able to paint them so realistically, giving them personalities that Albert-the-dog-lover saw in the dogs himself. This idea that animals had emotions and should be treated with respect as living creatures also began in the 19th century under the influence of William Wilberforce, who eventually founded the RSPCA (Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, of which the American version, the ASPCA, was an unofficial off-shoot). But in the art world itself, the role of animal painting was nothing new. It was recognized by the Academy as a form of genre painting, and animals for centuries had been used as subjects in paintings to convey iconographical representations of pride, sin, sexual prowess, and so on. Grand Manner portraits by Veronese, Van Dyck, Reynolds, and so on, often include dogs or other animals, the visual image telling the viewer that the subject has a sense of refinement and/or is a powerful landowner. And although I am focusing exclusively on dogs for this post, horses were another popular animal that appeared in these same portraits, signifying to viewers the wealth and power of the men depicted by these artists.

Landseer may have painted a few pictures of animals that can be read today as silly or sentimental, but the power of an image such as The Old Shepherd's Chief Mourner resonated so greatly his contemporaries that when Landseer himself died in 1873 his bronze tombstone at St. Paul's Cathedral was engraved with the same work of art. It was an appropriate acknowledgment of Landseer's popularity and his significant contribution to British art and animal painting.

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