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Sir Edwin Landseer is known today as the “animal painter.” The 19th-century British artist developed that skill from a very early age. But in his long career, he also created portraits of fellow Britons, including ones as famous as Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.

Edwin Landseer, R.A., Studies in a Farmyard; Heads of a Boar, Sheep and Donkey, 1810?, etching, © Royal Academy of Arts, London

1. He was a prodigy.

Landseer’s father, an accomplished engraver, believed that formal education was harmful to aspiring artists. He sent young Edwin, then only five or six, into the fields to sketch sheep, goats, and other animals. Some of those early drawings are now in museums around the world.

At age 11 Edwin won the Royal Society of Arts’s silver palette for his animal drawings. At 13 he debuted at the Royal Academy in London, exhibiting two drawings.

Sir Edwin Landseer, Lion Defending its Prey, c. 1840, oil on paper on canvas, Gift of Frank Anderson Trapp, 2004.166.26

2. He studied animals by dissecting them.

An older artist, Benjamin Robert Haydon, encouraged the teenage Edwin to dissect a lion carcass and in order to better understand animal muscular and skeletal structure. 

Landseer would become celebrated for the realism and drama of his animal portraits.

Two large dogs approach a man lying unconscious and mostly buried in the snow in this horizontal painting. The head of the man comes toward us, at the lower center of the composition, and the dogs are close to us. In the center of the painting, a large tan and white dog has short, glossy fur and floppy ears, and its jowly mouth hangs open with the pink tongue visible. It paws at the snow partially covering most of the body of the man, who wears an olive-green coat with a fur collar and white shirt. The dog looks up to our right, and its body and white-tipped tail recede diagonally into the picture to the left. There is a red blanket with black edging over the dog’s back, and the hound wears a wide, fur-lined silver collar ornamented with metalwork lions and bells. The second dog, a dark brown brindle color, sits to the immediate left of the first dog. It gazes down at the prone person and bends its head down to lick a bare pale, pink hand that protrudes from under the snow. The brindle dog wears a small barrel around its neck on a brown buckled leather collar. The man’s dark brown hair falls over the snow. His pale gray face is upward, and his shoulders are visible while his arms splay out, and the rest of his body, extending into the picture, is covered with snow. The man’s eyes are closed. His right hand, in a tan leather glove, reaches toward us from the snow, while a green velvet cap with a red ribbon lies under the hand. The scene is enclosed by large, angular, steel and blue-gray boulders and rock formations, with two craggy pine trees above. Beyond lies a mountain landscape with a V-shaped pass at the center top framed by the steep ascent of jagged, snowy hillsides and a sliver of blue sky. A blocky stone building is nestled in among the crags to our right. On a path leading from the building, three bearded men wearing black caps and robes hurry toward the dogs. The nearest of them holds up a staff with a cross on the top and waves or signals to the men farther back along the path.

Sir Edwin Landseer, Alpine Mastiffs Reanimating a Distressed Traveler, 1820, oil on canvas, Patrons' Permanent Fund, 2019.120.1

3. There is a dog named after him.

Sir Edwin is responsible for the myth that Saint Bernard dogs carried kegs of brandy around their necks during rescue missions. Not true, unfortunately, despite what we see in his popular Alpine Mastiffs Reanimating a Distressed Traveler. It is true that the black and white Newfoundland breed known as the Landseer was named after the artist.

Sir Edwin Landseer, Study for "Alpine Mastiffs Reanimating a Distressed Traveler" (recto); Study for "Alpine Mastiffs Reanimating a Distressed Traveler" (verso), 1820, a) graphite and pen and brown ink on laid paper b) graphite on laid paper, The Helena E.M. Gunnarsson Fund, 2023.29.1.a-b

4. He may have been ambidextrous.

He was said to draw with both hands at once. A popular rumor was that Sir Edwin could work on a horse’s tail with one hand while completing the animal’s head with the other.

Sir Edwin Landseer, A Bellowing Stag, probably 1840/1850, pen and brown ink over graphite on wove paper, Gift of William B. O'Neal, 1985.42.1

5. He was famous in his day.

Sir Edwin became one of the most famous artists of his time. He made a fortune by selling his artworks as engravings made by his brother, Thomas Landseer.

Sir Edwin Landseer, The Duke of Devonshire and Lady Louisa Egerton, c. 1853, oil on canvas, Corcoran Collection (Edward C. and Mary Walker Collection), 2014.136.58

6. He was a favorite of Queen Victoria and friend of Charles Dickens.

Landseer was welcome in the most exclusive circles of society, including among British royals and other members of the English nobility. He was also friends with novelists Sir Walter Scott, Charles Dickens, and William Thackeray. He painted many portraits of Queen Victoria and her pets. And he even gave her and Prince Albert etching lessons. The queen knighted Landseer in 1850.

Sir Edwin Landseer, Contending Group after Nature [A Lion Fighting a Tiger and a Leopard], 1822, pen and black and brown ink with gray and brown wash over graphite on laid paper, mounted, Gift of Connie Simmons and James D. Krugman, 2021.27.1

7. His paintings had moral meanings.

Landseer often painted animals together to communicate a moral or convey a social commentary. A pair of paintings of a mangy terrier and groomed deerhound represent the working and aristocratic classes, respectively. 

Monarch of the Glen, maybe his most famous painting, became a symbol for Scotland. For some, this image of a stag came to symbolize the country’s spirit and beauty. Reproductions of the painting can now be found on everything from bottles of scotch and tins of shortbread to packages of cough drops and insurance company logos. 

Sir Edwin Landseer, Scene from A Midsummer Night's Dream. Titania and Bottom, 1848-1851, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Felton Bequest, 1932

8He didn’t just paint animals.

In 1851, Landseer departed from his usual subjects to create Scene from A Midsummer Night's Dream. Titania and Bottom. The painting, based on the play by William Shakespeare, shows the fairy queen Titania in love with Nick Bottom, a man with the head of an ass (to reflect his self-importance). The pair is in the woods, surrounded by faeries and enchanted animals. Queen Victoria called the work “a gem, beautiful, fairy-like and graceful.”

British artist John Ballantyne painted Landseer in the process of sculpting the lion statues for Trafalgar Square.

John Ballantyne, Sir Edwin Landseer, oil on canvas, circa 1865, NPG 835, © National Portrait Gallery, London

9. He carved London’s famous lions.

If you have ever been a tourist in London, you may have posed for a photo with Sir Edwin’s most famous animals: the four bronze lions guarding the base of Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square. 

Sir Edwin studied lions, both living and dead, to make the sculptures. The bronze for them came from the cannons of French and Spanish ships defeated in the Battle of Trafalgar.

Sir Edwin Landseer, The Old Shepherd's Chief Mourner, 1837, oil painting, ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

10. He died a national hero.

In middle age, Sir Edwin suffered from severe depression, diagnosed as a nervous breakdown. He rallied and returned to his work, but it is said that alcohol and drugs contributed to his relapse. His family declared him legally insane in 1872. 

He died the following year, and his funeral was a national event. He is buried in Saint Paul’s Cathedral in London. 

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John Strand

Former Associate Senior Editor

August 11, 2023