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Dogs in art: the work of Edwin Landseer

My last blog post looked at paintings and drawings of dogs by a variety of artists, but this week’s post will focus on just one: Edwin Landseer. Even if you don’t know his work, his name might be familiar to you if you’re a dog lover, because the Landseer breed is named after him. The painting A Distinguished Member of the Humane Society (1838) shows the type of dog that is now known as a Landseer:

Edwin Landseer (1802—1873) was an English painter, sculptor, and engraver. While he did paint landscapes and portraits, his subject matter was primarily animals.

Landseer was very popular in his lifetime and his popularity cut across class divisions. He was a favourite of Queen Victoria, and of other aristocrats who commissioned paintings from him, but prints of his work were also popular items in middle class homes. Some art critics objected to the sentimentality and human emotion that Landseer infused into his animals, but it was that same sentimentality that won that hearts of the public.

Suspense is an example of how Landseer infused his dogs with human emotions and intelligence. In this painting, we see a 17th-century knight’s armour on the table, and drops of blood near the feather on the floor. Perhaps the dog’s master been wounded and the closed door leads to the room where he is being treated. The dog endures the suspense while he waits intently outside the door.

Sleeping Bloodhound shows a dog who is sleeping with one eye half open, and ears on the alert. He is curled up next to his master’s helmet, and altogether the image is one of fidelity and loyalty that is reinforced by the warmth of the colours.

painting of a sleeping bloodhound

 No Place Like Home is another piece that tugs at the heart-strings. The title comes from a popular 19th century song that begins “be it never so humble, there’s no place like home.” The dog’s facial expression is so imploring, I can’t help but think that he is entreating someone to let him stay in that little kennel, rough and poor though it looks. Perhaps he is a stray in search of a home. The snail in the foreground also suggests this idea, because here is an animal that carries its home around with it. The sentimentality of this piece might have had a deeper meaning for those who saw it when it was first painted in 1842, because at the time Britain was suffering through a prolonged economic depression that became known as the “hungry forties.” It was a period of widespread strikes, unemployment, poor harvests, and depressed trade.  Perhaps the original viewers would have shared in the sympathy and the sentiment that Landseer communicates in this scene.

stray dog begging for a home

There are also touches of humour in Landseer’s dog paintings. Often the humour is in the juxtaposition of big breeds and little breeds, such as Doubtful Crumbs.

Probably the best example of this type of juxtaposition, though, is Dignity and Impudence. Aside from the contrasting personalities and sizes of the dogs, this painting derives a bit of its humour by parodying Dutch portraits from centuries past.

The parody comes from the way that Landseer has composed the painting. The dogs look out of their kennel in the same way that Dutch Golden Age painters frequently posed their human subjects, on the thresholds of doors or windows. Compare Landseer’s painting to this self-portrait by Gerrit Dou:

two dogs looking out of a doghouse self portrait by dutch artist gerrit dou

Finally, if you’ve ever visited London’s Trafalgar Square, or seen pictures of it, then you’ve seen Landseer’s work. He was the artist who sculpted the lions that are at the base of Nelson’s Column. Wreaths were placed on them to mark his death in 1872.

If you’d like to know more about Landseer, a good place to start is this entry on Wikipedia.

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