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  • Edwin Henry Landseer
    Mar 7, 1802 - Oct 1, 1873
  • The Old Shepherd's Chief Mourner - Sir Edwin Henry Landseer was an English painter, well known for his paintings of animals - particularly horses, dogs and stags. The best known of Landseer's works. He was a notable figure in 19th century British art, and his works can be found in Tate Britain, the Victoria and Albert Museum, Kenwood House and the Wallace Collection in London. He also collaborated with fellow painter Frederick Richard Lee.
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The Old Shepherd's Chief Mourner
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  • The Old Shepherd's Chief Mourner

  • Edwin Henry Landseer
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  • 1837
    Oil on canvas
    Victoria and Albert Museum, England.

    While this accompanying label is factually accurate, it also omits a large portion of the story, namely that this painting became an important part of animal advocacy campaigns in the 19th century. For example, in March 1881, it was reproduced on the pages of Our Dumb Animals, the publication of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (MSPCA), and declared to be “eminently appropriate” for this publication.

    The current gallery label points out that the animals Landseer painted “display human feelings and characteristics.” However, in the late 19th century, the MSPCA and other advocates took it a step further and saw this painting as an important way to underscore the fact that both human and non-human animals experienced similar emotions. In other words, this painting was not simply a visual symbol for human emotions and experiences. It was, at least for some viewers, a reminder of the shared experiences between human and non-human animals. This dog mourns the loss of a close companion, something many viewers of this painting would have experienced. Furthermore, this painting also highlights the strong emotional bonds that can exist between human and non-human animals. For an organization like the MSPCA, then, this kind of image was an important part of its advocacy efforts.

    The central figure in this painting is a dog who rests his head on the simple wooden coffin containing the body of his human companion, the “old shepherd” of the painting’s title. That this dog refuses to leave this man’s side – even after death – highlights the close relationship that these two had. Ruskin and others have pointed to the simple, rustic furnishings in the room where this scene takes place, underscoring the character of the man who once lived there. Again, this is all true – the bible on the stool points to piety, for example – however, it is the relationship between man and dog that became the focal point for so many viewers of this picture, including animal advocacy groups like the MSPCA.

    When I look at this painting, then, I can’t help but think of this history. It was a popular painting, and many prints were made of it during the 19th century. I often wonder about the reasons that would motivate people to purchase a print of this painting and hang it in their home. Undoubtedly the cachet of having a copy of a famous painting by a famous artist played a role here (similar to the way we might purchase a poster or postcard of our favorite works of art today); however, given the ways in which animal advocacy groups embraced this image, I think there was more to it than straightforward artistic adoration.

    When I look at The Old Shepherd’s Chief Mourner I feel strongly connected to the reformers and advocates from previous generations who understood the impact that art and visual culture could have in the very complex discussions about the ways in which non-human animals should be treated in our society, people who have paved the way for activists today. This painting and, indeed, most of Landseer’s other paintings are not taken that seriously by art historians and critics today. As the V&A gallery label indicates, this image is often read as an example of Victorian sentimentality, a throwback to “olden days” when life was somehow different from ours. However, it is important to take another look at this painting, to remember the place this image held in the minds of those involved with early animal advocacy campaigns. As is the case today, those wanting to change the world for animals relied heavily on visual imagery, and Landseer’s work was especially popular in this context. This image may have more in common with our current activist efforts than we recognize at first glance.

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Other paintings by Edwin Henry Landseer:

'Lion', a Newfoundland Dog
'Lion', a Newfoundland Dog
A Scene at Abbotsford
A Scene at Abbotsford
A Boy and Two Greyhounds Resting
A Boy and Two Greyhounds Resting
A Bullock Train Attacked by a Lion
A Bullock Train Attacked by a Lion
Edwin Henry LandseerLandseer was born at 71 Queen Anne Street East (afterwards 33 Foley Street), London, on March 7th 1802. Landseer was a brilliant animal painter whose oil paintings had added appeal in the Victorian age because of his tendency to give his animal scenes a moral dimension. These Landseer paintings were widely circulated in his time in the form of engravings, often made by his brother Thomas. Edwin Landseer was the youngest son of an engraver. The three Landseer brothers studied under Benjamin Robert Haydon, the historical painter, from 1815. Haydon encouraged Landseer to study animal anatomy. In 1816, Landseer entered the Royal Academy Schools, but he had already exhibited at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in the previous year. Landseer was elected Associate of the Royal Academy in 1826 aged only twenty four, and full Academician in 1831 when not yet thirty.

In 1824 Landseer made the first of many visits to Scotland. Landseer fell in love with the Highlands, which inspired many of his later paintings such as “The Monarch of the Glen” (Royal Academy 1851, John Dewar & Sons Limited). Landseer also visited Sir Walter Scott, who admired his paintings and chose him as one of the illustrators to the Waverley edition of his novels. In the 1830s Landseer paintings gained wide popularity and was bought both by the aristocracy and the newly important middle class. Landseer himself moved freely in aristocratic circles, and after 1836 he enjoyed royal patronage, especially in the 1840s when Victoria and Albert also discovered Scotland. Landseer paid his first visit to their home, Balmoral in 1850 to paint a large group portrait painting of the royal family. Landseer was knighted that year even though the painting was never finished.

After a breakdown in 1840, partly caused by the failure of the royal portrait, Landseer had a permanent fight against depression and ill health, although Landseer continued to paint brilliantly almost until the end of his life. In the 1860s Landseer modelled the lions at the base of Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square and these were unveiled in 1867. In 1866 Landseer declined the presidency of the Royal Academy, and after 1870 sank slowly into madness. A major exhibition of Landseer paintings was held at the Tate Gallery in 1981, organised by Richard Ormond.