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 once again 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 initial emotional breakdown. I wonder if he had noticed that the lion tamer is every bit 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.