11 OCTOBER 1873, Page 14



THE late Sir Edwin Landseer was a man of original genius, and his death has occurred at a period of his career which is not unfavourable to an estimate of his place in the ranks of great artists. No painter has ever achieved in his lifetime a more widespread popularity, or had his works, so far, at least, as they could be interpreted by the engraver, more ex- tensively known and admired. He survived the time of his maturity long enough for his best works to lose their novelty; and if his latest productions betrayed the weakness of a failing hand dr eye, their shortcomings, such as they were, merely gave rise to regret, as evidence of the wane of power of an universal favourite. As time wore on, however, and his chief pictures came to be looked upon as the works of a past generation, it was found out that as a painter of animals there were contemporaries with whom he could not compete in their own sections of that branch of art, while at the same time, there were other sections in which he re- mained unique, and to all appearance inimitable. In cattle paint- ing he was surpassed by many other masters besides Paul Potter. He could not portray a race-horse like Stubbs, or the picturesque stock of the farmyard like Morland. In depicting the varieties of the animal creation he was not the artist most in favour with zoologists, and even for a portrait of a sporting dog, it is proba- ble that other painters might in many cases have been preferred. When the spirited picture of the " Horse Fair," by Madlle. Rosa Bonheur, was first exhibited in London, it was felt to contain something which Landseer had never even attempted. We cannot call to mind half-a-dozen of his pictures which represent rapid movement or energetic muscular exertion. He was not a painter of action, like Rubens and Snyders. But within the narrow limits of his art, and under the special conditions in which be chose to depict certain animals, he must, we think, be admitted to be without a rival. Though he painted other animals with success, his fame is likely to rest mainly upon his dogs, his deer, and his lions. Yet even in the first and chief category he made his own selection of subjects. There are whole fields of dog life and character which Landseer left untouched, not only on the more brutal side of the animal's nature, which had little in it to excite the painter's sympathies, but even in its aspects of greatest intelligence. Of the sheep-dog's cheerful glance of ready obedience, the various expressions of delight of most dogs in the enjoyment of air and

exercise, the expectant frisk, and leap of welcome, and the many gestures of affection for a living as well as a dead master, we see little or nothing. The actual relations between dog and dog are scarcely depicted at all. Their own frolic- some gambols one with another are kept out of sight. With these many limitations we can scarcely think that he has treated the subject of canine nature with all the variety and completeness implied in the title which has been bestowed upon him, of the- " Shakespeare of the World of Dogs." Indeed, the poet himself has given us a graphic picture of canine manners which have no- place in the social system portrayed by the painter. There is a vast divergence of sentiment between the dog of Launce and the dog of Landseer. " I think Crab, my dog, be the sourest-natured dog that lives ; my mother weeping, my father wailing, my sister crying, our maid howling, our cat wringing her hands, and all our house in a great perplexity, yet did not this cruel-hearted cur shed one tear." Landseer's dogs, on the contrary, and even his stags, overflow with sentiment and fine feeling.. The " Highland Music " of the bag-pipe inspires one of them with ecstatic delight, the hound of " High Life " has an air of true aristocratic hauteur, and the "Hunted Stag" yields to his fate with an upturned glance of pious resignation. There is, moreover, a comic point of view from which a Shakespeare could not fail to have represented canine habits. While watching the action of a dog, one's sense of the ludicrous is constantly tickled by some- sudden reminder of the fact that what seems to be an intellectual expression is really nothing of the sort, as when a course of appar- ently abstruse meditation is interrupted by such trivial acts as snap- ping at flies and ecratchings of the ear. We cannot help thinking that- there was some want of a sense of humour in that intensity of love and sympathy with the animal which led the painter to keep in the background much of the vulgar realities of dog life, and to confine himself to subjects where some sentimental analogy to man's emotions could be depicted, or where some situation of more- than usual interest arose out of the relations between dog and man. It is, however, in these subjects that he stands at his highest point, and his art assumes its noblest form. To this class belong the study of a bloodhound watching for his master, the St. Bernard dogs in the snow, and greatest of all, in its true and simple pathos, the " Shepherd's Chief Mourner." Except for the- want of this special kind of interest, there are many of his simple portraits of dogs which exhibit mastery of painting and truth of character equal to these, as, for example, the well-known New- foundland of the Humane Society, the King Charles spaniels, and• the sleeping bloodhound.

It may be doubted, however, whether Landseer's popularity is not due in a greater degree to a class of pictures in which animals are treated in an ideal fashion, and instead of being painted as they really exist, are invested with human expression, and repre- sented as endowed with ideas and emotions proper to man. To the majority of people fables are more attractive reading than natural history, and to understand and admire pictures of this kind requires no sort of artistic education, and but little knowledge of animal life. The combination which gives them their interest is not by any means a high kind of idealism ; it is but common-place humour, and as old as the hills. But it seems to have possessed a certain fascination in all ages of the world, and to have been generally associated with a sense of the ludicrous. The earliest caricatures and grotesques nearly always take this form, and one- can scarcely help feeling that there is something facetious, if not farcical, in the representation of bird, beast, or fish playing the part of man. Hence there has always been a difficulty in- illustrating fables. If the illustration is made too grotesque, the spirit and tone of the original are lost. Yet an appeal to the eye exhibits so palpably the incongruity of the idea, that it is no easy matter to avoid the ridiculous. If, on the other hand, the human expression is not sufficiently insisted on, the effect is uninteresting, as well as unnatural. It was in striking a happy mean between these two extremes that Sir- Edwin displayed his peculiar talent in the pictures referred to. His success in them seems to have been due partly to a thorough mastery of the animal element, coupled with great technical skill in certain kinds of imitation, but more to a consummate tact and knowledge of the audience before whom his drama was to be played. He infused into his dogs the exact measure of humanity which would be tolerated, and succeeded in elevating into the region of comedy what, in less skilful hands, and under the guidance of a less fastidious taste, would have degenerated into farce. It may be doubted whether any other animal than the dog could have been treated with the like success. The comical effect of giving the horse a human expression may be seen in James Ward's picture

of the " Council of Horses," and in all probability even the talent of Landseer would have been unequal to a transfer to canvas of the houyhnm of Swift. Yet, after all, we cannot help feeling that in such pictures as " Laying down the Law " and "Alex- ander and Diogenes," and even in the "Jack in Office," the con- oeit is strained as far as it will go, and that there is some truth in the witty sneer of a French critic :—" Les animaux fabulistes de Is Fontaine resteraient coil devant ceux de Sir Edwin Landseer, R.A., tent ceux-ci out des regards fins et des gestes significatifs."

In one picture, however, Sir Edwin has represented a yet more fanciful blending of man and beast. The "Defeat of Comus" stands alone among his paintings as an imaginative work of a -high order. But here the transition is effected in the opposite direction. It is not the beast developing into a man, but what unhappily seems more natural, the conferring upon man the attri- butes of the beast. The charming scene from the " Midsummer Night's Dream" is, we think, his only other imaginative picture of a kindred class.

The name of Landseer is almost as nearly and as deservedly associated with the red deer as it is with the dog, but it bids fair to become even more universally suggestive of the lion. It has often been observed with truth that the four grand guardians -of the Nelson column are handled with more of the feeling of a painter than of a sculptor ; but for all that, they are noble, massive -creatures, and every inch kings of beasts, and they seem ready at any moment to rise and shake themselves, and roar, so that it would do any man's heart good to hear them.

It is to the delineation of single animals, and the character he gave them, that we must look for the artistic quality of Landseer's work. There is sometimes, it is true, as in the decorative Comus picture, which reminds us of Maclise, and in the " Spearing the Otter," where the nature of the subject gave a necessary unity to the group, an agreeable flow of line in his composition, as there always is in the drawing of the separate parts ; but where many objects have to be introduced, the grouping and -treatment are apt to be cramped and artificial, wanting in resource, and not suggestive of anything beyond what is actually painted. In the " Time of Peace," for instance, the sheep and goats seem dropped in bunches along the edge of the cliff. In the "Drover's Departure," the canvas is crowded in confusion without giving the idea of multitude, the objects being clotted together, and con- veying the sensation of discomfort of a house turned inside out, when the furniture-van stands at the door. In the "Maid and the Magpie" the heads are forced into a small circle, and in the "Dialogue at Waterloo " the party of guides at dinner fights with the principal group. There is not much indication of atmosphere in these works, but Landseer had little pretension to skill in land- seape, or in figure-painting either. In early pictures the acces- sories are sometimes carefully painted, but in his later works they were very slight, with little distinction of texture. His -colouring, though accused of clayiness or chalkiness, and often untrue to nature, was seldom inharmonious ; and the dexterity with which he wielded the brush in the expression of certain tex- tures was little short of the marvellous. He would employ all the resources of tone and handling in a telling contrast between tranalucent.brilliancy of eye and soft downy texture of fur, which in such pictures as the " King Charles' Spaniels" is not to be surpassed. But that he could on occasion express a coarser texture and more solid substance with equal facility is proved in one of his finest works,—the masterly study of a sleeping blood- aound in the Bell collection, which was painted in a few hours from the dead animal.