SIR EDWIN HENRY LANDSEER, R.A.
(London 1802 – 1873)
A Dead Stag, with Sketched Figures of a Ghillie and Hounds
oil on board
48 x 60.5cm (19 x 23 ¾in)
The Artist’s studio sale, London, Christie’s, 8th-14th May 1874, lot 139 (as “a dead roe deer”, bt. by Agnew); From whom bought by the grandfather of the late owner; sale, London, Sotheby’s, 06 July 2011 from whence purchased.
Sheffield City Art Galleries, Landseer, 6th February – 12th March 1972, no. 92; Edinburgh, Royal Scottish Academy, The Monarch of the Glen, Landseer in the Highlands. 14th April – 10th July 2005, no. 49.
R. Ormond. The Monarch of the Glen, Landseer in the Highlands, Edinburgh 2005. P. 54
illus. pl. 49.
Sir Edwin Henry Landseer was a renowned English painter, regarded as the premier animal painter of his time. He was a significant figure in Victorian society, a darling of aristocratic circles and a favorite of Queen Victoria. Through the dissemination of prints after his paintings, Landseer’s work was also well known and much desired by the middle-class. Though he was known for his paintings, his most public commission was for the lions he modeled at the base of Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square.
Landseer was born 7 March 1802 in London, the youngest son of John and Jane Landseer. Two of his brothers were also artists, one made several engravings of Landseer’s paintings, and two of his sisters painted miniatures. His father was an engraver, and though hotheaded and known for his difficult temperament, he was attentive to the talents of his children. He faithfully brought his son to the fields at Finchley Road in North London to sketch farm animals. He trained the young Landseer to draw from life, referring to those fields as his son’s first studio.[i]
Along with his two brothers, Landseer received formal training from history painter Benjamin Robert Haydon. He made copies of Haydon’s anatomical studies and dissected animals under his instructor’s eye. Landseer gained a thorough understanding of animal anatomy and behavior that imbued his paintings with a certain empathy and realism. Landseer’s early drawings were tight and precise, his subjects meticulously observed. His talent was quickly recognized. By the age of thirteen, in 1815, he received the Silver Palette from the Society of Arts. Just two years later he showed his first works at the Royal Academy as an honorary exhibiter, being too young to participate as a regular contributor. Before the age of thirty Landseer was a Royal Academician. Success came quickly and easily.
The 1830s were the artist’s golden years, but in 1840, at the height of his career and reputation, Landseer had a devastating mental breakdown. A series of distressing events most likely provoked his alarming collapse, including a refusal of marriage, his mother’s death, and a friend’s murder. Throughout his life, Landseer was plagued by periodic mood swings and associated illnesses. His breakdowns and subsequent depressive periods were compounded by alcohol and drug abuse. Though this instability sabotaged most of his relationships, Landseer’s artistic productivity continued with few breaks the rest of his life with the crucial help of his friend and business manager, Jacob Bell. His death in 1873 was felt by all of Britain and described as “a merciful release” by Queen Victoria.[ii]
The present sketch is an unfinished work painted early in the artist’s career, in the 1830s. It was intended to be an independent painting that was never finished for unknown reasons. The artist compiled several unfinished paintings in the years following his breakdown as he struggled to complete commissions. This panel, however, was painted at least a decade before his mental collapse, and was likely a personal piece that he never finished because his many commissions got in the way. He must have loved the sketch, for he kept it in his studio for the remainder of his life. He also return to this very composition much later in his career in An Event in the Forest, painted in 1865. The original is lost, but an engraving made by Landseer’s brother, Thomas, reveals the draped body of the stag practically unaltered from the present work.
The unfinished nature of the piece reveals the artist’s working method of establishing a composition with minimal deft lines, a far cry from the tight and careful drawings of his childhood. Quick confident strokes define the simplified forms of a hunting guide, called a ghillie, and his two hounds. Reclining against the body of the stag, the ghillie’s left arm casually rests atop his kill. One of his hunting hounds sits to his right, while the other seems to curiously sniff at the snout of the dead deer. The rhythm of these flowing lines provides a wonderful energy to the painting complementing the highly finished stag in the center of the composition. Surrounded by a flurry of kinetic lines, the stag’s body is still and heavy, draped over hard gray stone. Painted with great attention, the thick red-brown fur of the animal is palpably coarse and vivid.
In 1824 Landseer visited Scotland for the first time and was deeply moved by its unique character and beauty. Every autumn he faithfully returned to the Highlands to shoot, hunt, sketch, and relax. Memories of his time there and impressions of the landscape and wildlife inspired much of the artist’s work, including the present painting. His rare depictions of deer subjects in the 1820s and 30s celebrated the sport of the hunt and captured a sense of the Highland life. In the 1840s Landseer began to paint deer more frequently, but no longer as the subject of the hunt. The deer became a symbol of freedom, of the Sublime, distant from its relationship with man. His concept of the “Heroic Stag” is best exemplified in his most well known painting, The Monarch of the Glen (1851), which presents a majestic view of a solitary stag. Our present work, conversely, presents the stag as a trophy and victim, free of transcendental meaning and moral dimension. It is elegant and beautiful in its purity, its simplicity.
[i] Richard Ormond, Sir Edwin Landseer, exhibition catalogue, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, 25 October 1981 – 3 January 1982, p. 2
[ii] Ormond, 22.