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Sir Edwin Landseer (1802–1873) was one of the most successful and beloved English artists during the apogee of British power–in fact he was Queen Victoria’s favorite painter. From a young age, Landseer was a painting prodigy. He was ambidextrous and it was even said that he could paint with both hands at the same time. Although he could paint people and landscapes with equal ease, what most endeared Landseer to the Victorian public was his skill at painting the emotions of animals. Most of his paintings involve the faces and demeanor of dogs and horses–either by themselves or interacting with their owners. These sentimental paintings of pets and favorite livestock animals made Landseer rich and famous, but there was more to his art than just portraying anthropomorphised creatures.
In this painting (completed in 1839) Landseer has put aside the spaniels, geldings, and water dogs which were his normal fare in order to address the thin line separating domestication from wildness. Dressed like Mark Anthony, the American lion-tamer Isaac Van Amburgh reclines in a cage filled with tigers, lions, and leopards. In his arm is a little lamb (which, hilariously, seems to share Isaac’s expression of languid arrogance). Although the lion tamer and the sheep are nicely painted, the real subjects of the painting are the great cats which stare at the armored man and the lamb with mixed expressions of wild sly hunger, fear, ingratiating acquiescence, and madness. Beyond the bars lies the entire panoply of 19th century society. A mother holds her infant tight as a rich merchant stares into the cage. A black man in livery turns his head toward a martinet standing beneath the Queen’s flag. This is not a sanitized scene of dogs playing together: there are multiple planes of control and subjugation as one proceeds through the levels of the painting.
Landseer found the subject of the lion tamer fascinating and later he painted another painting of Isaac Van Amburgh which shows the great cats cowering and sad. As ever, the whip-wielding Van Amburgh is dressed as a Roman and is behind bars. Flowers and laurels lay at the edge of the cage but so do newspapers and detritus. The huge felines are one more the focus of the painting, but, if possible, they look even more crazed and miserable [unfortunately I could only find a small jpeg of this work—the original is at Yale if you are near New Haven].
There was a dark, scary, & agonized side to Landseer as well. He had a nervous breakdown in his late thirties and was slowly devoured by insanity in the years thereafter. In fact during his final decades he sank so deeply into substance abuse and strange bouts of gratuitous cruelty, that his family had him committed to an insane asylum. Both of these paintings were crafted after Landseer’s emotional breakdown. I wonder if he had noticed that the lion tamer is as cruel and alarming as the beasts he is whipping (and is likewise behind bars). I wonder too if the artist had glimpsed an allegory of apparently genteel Victorian society within these disquieting pictures. But, most of all, I wonder if Landseer had already intimated that he too would end his life in a cage.
One of the most useful colors in an artist’s palette is one of the last colors anyone else would think. Only its spooky name would incline your attention towards it. Caput mortuum, which means dead head or death head, is made of haematite–iron oxide (in fact there are several extremely similar colors made of the same pigment but with slightly different hues and names–particularly mars violet and Indian red—but we will stick to talking about caput mortuum because that’s the variation I use). This unpromising rust color possesses a protean mutability–it could be red, brown, orange, or violet depending on the context. Although it can stand on its own as a focus of attention, caput mortuum is very easy to paint into a network of subtle shadows: many painters use it for shadowed flesh or as land cast in darkness (after all a person’s flesh and the red clay of a landscape both take their ruddiness from iron).
Though not a flashy color, caput mortuum has a dignity and a beauty to it. In the middle ages and Renaissance, painters used it to paint the robes and clothing of eminent monastic religious figures and of patrons & donors (ie the people actually paying for the painting). Oftentimes when looking at a religious painting, a viewer will notice that Jesus, Mary, and Saint Peter–resplendent in gold, white, blue, and red—are joined by an unknown pair of merchants wearing caput mortuum. These two often have the most realistic and beautifully painted faces in the painting–it is difficult to say what Jesus really looked like but even the most money grubbing burgher knows his own face!
Although there is something somber about the deep color of caput mortuum, its name does not come from an obvious association with blood and corpses. In addition to meaning “dead head” the Latin phrase also means “worthless remains” and it was used by alchemists to describe the inert residue left over from a chemical reaction. Apparently this by-product was often a rusty violet color. Alchemists used a (very) stylized skull to denote the oxidized left-overs.
However it’s more evocative to imagine the pigment being named after a death’s head. The concept lends art a much needed touch of operatic dark magic.
In our explorations of the concept of “gothic” we have touched on the reemergence of interest in medieval form which affected the romantic movement of the 19th century (here are links about how this happened in literature and architecture). Aside from a cursory mention of the Pre-Raphaelites however, we have not touched deeply on how gothic aesthetic forms affected painting.
Enter one of my favorite romantic painters, Caspar David Friedrich (September 5, 1774 – May 7, 1840), a tempestuous German whose tragic early life drew him towards haunting gothic landscapes. Friedrich painted melancholy scenes of emptiness and ruin: humans inhabiting his landscapes tend to be dwarfed by ancient trees, sharp mountains, and abandoned medieval buildings (or, worse, they are absent altogether). By showing how trifling people are in the face of time and nature, Friedrich hoped to highlight what is sublime about existence. He often painted cemeteries and winter landscapes and he has combined these two themes in Abtei im Eichwald (“The Abbey in the Oakland”) which portrays Eldena Abbey, a Cistercian Abbey in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern destroyed by Swedish troops during the Thirty-Years War. Insect-like mourners struggle through a snowy churchyard dominated by a great gothic arch. Although the trees are barren, the church is broken, and the land is literally dead, there is an exalted dignity to the great abbey which ruin has somehow enhanced.
Friedrich came back to this theme again and again. Another winter cemetery work Hünengrab im Schnee (“Dolmen in Snow”) lacks even the bleak notes of Christianity which suffuse Abtei im Eichwald. The canvas shows a prehistoric barrow covered in snow beneath ancient black oak trees. The leafless trees and the snow on the grave of a millennia-dead Mesolithic king, give an impression of lifeless bleakness, and yet as always with Friedrich (and indeed with romantic aesthetics) the tension in the work draws the eye and leads to philosophical meditation. Even in the stark frozen tableau there is still a struggle against hopelessness. Friedrich always found a way to show the triumph of haunting beauty which is transcendent over darkness.