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Sir Edwin Henry Landseer, R.A. (London, 1802-1873)
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Sir Edwin Henry Landseer, R.A. (London, 1802-1873)

Alpine Mastiffs Reanimating a Distressed Traveller

Details
Sir Edwin Henry Landseer, R.A. (London, 1802-1873)
Alpine Mastiffs Reanimating a Distressed Traveller
oil on canvas
74 ½ x 93 3/8 in. (189 x 237 cm.)
inscribed 'On original canvas, signed and painted in 1820' (on the reverse)
Provenance
Jesse Watts Russell; his sale (†), Christie's, London, 3 July 1875, lot 29.
Richard Peacock; his sale (†), Christie's, London, 4 May 1889, lot 65, and 26 March 1892, lot 118.
Col. Ralph Peacock; his sale, Knight, Frank and Rutley, London, 31 October 1928.
with Wildenstein & Co., New York.
Geraldine Rockefeller Dodge; her sale (†), Sotheby Parke Bernet, New York, 5 December 1975, lot 54.
Anonymous sale; Sotheby's, New York, 4 June 1993, lot 61 ($525,000).

Jesse Watts Russell (1786-1875) was the son of Jesse Russell (d. 1820), a soap boiler and in 1811 married the heiress of the wine merchant, David Pike Watts, who died in 1816. Educated at Worcester College, Oxford, he had by 1811 acquired Ilam in Staffordshire from the Port family. On his father’s death in 1820 he inherited half of his Essex property and his share of the residue of the estate was £133,333. In that year he was elected as Member of Parliament for the spectacularly ‘rotten’ borough of Gatton, holding the seat until 1826. Ilam Hall was rebuilt in 1821-6 by James Trubshaw to the design of John Shaw. Watts Russell’s choice of a gothic style was no doubt in keeping with his political sympathies. In 1832 he stood unsuccessfully as conservative candidate for North Staffordshire, a seat his son was to hold in 1841-7.
Watts Russell evidently intended to build up a collection for his new house: by the time of the posthumous sale in 1875 this was referred to as the ‘Ilam Gallery’. The Landseer is stated in the catalogue to have been ‘Bought from the artist’, a manuscript annotation adding ‘cost 160 gs’. Only two other pictures are known to have been bought directly from the painters of these, a Collins exhibited in 1821 which Watts Russell is stated to have commissioned and Constable’s Harwich Lighthouse which he ‘obtained direct from the artist’. Apart from a view from his father-in-law’s house and three other landscapes by Beechey which were ‘presented by the artist’, presumably to Pyke Watts, Watts Russell clearly formed the collection himself. He bought no fewer than eight pictures at Christie’s at the de Tabley sale, 7 July 1827, including works by West, Shee, Ward, Fuseli, Howard, Owen, Thompson, Romney and Wilson, as well as single works from the Fonthill and Erlestoke sales. He also owned the two views of Oxford painted for Alderman Wyatt, including the High Street, recently acquired though Christie’s by the Ashmolean. Watts Russell’s collection of contemporary English pictures was not large, but the 33 lots which sold in 1875 for a total of £15,475 19s. offered a remarkable microcosm of the taste of his generation. Of his fourteen old masters, eight including all the more valuable were from the collection of Lord Radstock, who was presumably a friend as Watts Russell also owned a portrait of him by Northcote.
Literature
J. Landseer, ‘Some Account of the Dogs and of the Pass of the Great Saint Bernard, Intended to Accompany an Engraving after a Picture by Edwin Landseer, R.A. Elect (in the Collection of Jesse Watts Russell, Esq.) of Alpine Mastiffs Extricating an Overwhelmed Traveller from the Snow’, London, 1831.
F.G. Stephens, The Early Works of Sir Edwin Landseer…, London, 1869, p. 39.
F.G. Stephens, Memoirs of Sir Edwin Landseer: A Sketch of the Life of the Artist..., London, 1874, pp. 59-60.
C.S. Mann, The Works of the Late Sir Edwin Landseer, interleaved copy of 1874 Royal Academy Exhibition with extensive annotations and photographic reproductions of many Landseer prints, 1874-7, II, p. 31.
A. Graves, Catalogue of the Works of the Late Sir Edwin Landseer, R.A., London, 1876, p. 6, no. 42.
W.C. Monkhouse, The Works of Sir Edwin Landseer, London, 1879, pp. 38-9.
J.A. Manson. Sir Edwin Landseer, R.A., London, 1902, pp. 41-2 and 44.
Letters of Sir Walter Scott. Edited by H. J. C. Grierson, London, 1932-37, VI, p. 286.
J. Maas, ‘Rosa Bonheur and Sir Edwin Landseer: a Study in Mutual Admiration,’ Art at Auction, the Year at Sotheby Parke Bernet, London, 1976, pp. 68-9, illustrated.
C. Lennie, Landseer: The Victorian Paragon, London, 1976, pp. 24-5.
Exhibited
London, British Institution, 1820, no. 277.
Birmingham, Society of Artists, 1842, no. 250.
Manchester, Catalogue of the Art Treasures of the United Kingdom, 1857, no. 391.
Philadelphia, Museum of Art; and London, Tate Gallery, Sir Edwin Landseer, 25 October 1981-23 January 1982, no. 13.
Special notice

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Lot Essay

Painted in 1820, this monumental canvas of Alpine Mastiffs Reanimating a Distressed Traveller is an important early work by Edwin Landseer, the most celebrated British artist of his generation and, along with George Stubbs, the greatest animal painter from the golden age of British Art.

The dangers of crossing the Saint Bernard Pass, which linked Switzerland and Italy, were a perfect source of inspiration for romantic artists and writers in the first half of the nineteenth century. The Pass was the backdrop to Jacques-Louis David’s celebrated equestrian portrait of Napoleon Bonaparte crossing the Alps in 1801, and Turner made drawings of the summit in his Grenoble sketchbook (now at Tate Britain) when he undertook the crossing the following year. When the artist’s father, John Landseer, published a pamphlet to accompany the engraving after the present picture, he quoted extensively from William Brockedon’s Illustrations of Passes of the Alps and from Samuel Rogers’s poem The Pass of the Saint Bernard.

The subject of this remarkable picture is inspired by the Alpine mastiffs, sent out to rescue travellers by monks from the Hospice situated near the summit of Saint Bernard. In the 1981 exhibition catalogue, Richard Ormond noted that, ‘The idea of serving God and man in such a remote setting held a strong appeal for the romantic imagination. And the enormous dogs, whose courage and tenacity in the service of man were proverbial, appeared as sublime philanthropists, ‘living lifeboats’, as John Landseer called them ‘of those dreadful, desolate and tempestuous regions’ (R. Ormond, Sir Edwin Landseer, exhibition catalogue, London, 1981, p. 50).

The dramatic composition is dominated by the two magnificent mastiffs, who tower over the partially buried figure in the snow. In his pamphlet, John Landseer suggests that this elegantly attired young man is a student of science, possibly a mineralogist, who was trapped by an avalanche while walking in the mountains. As the dog carrying a small keg of brandy around its neck attempts to revive the stricken figure by licking his hand, the other paws the snow away and barks to alert his masters of their discovery. Landseer’s sparkling technique, that would later secure the artist’s reputation as the pre-eminent painter of his age, is beautifully displayed here. The protagonists in the foreground are captured with wonderfully full-blooded brushstrokes, while the rich green of the young man’s fur-lined coat and the red blanket, carried by the barking dog, are set off by masterfully textured layers of lead white that describe the mass of snow.

This highly romantic picture was the young artist’s largest and most ambitious work and received considerable praise when shown at the British Institution in 1820. Writing in the Annals of the Fine Arts for 1820, the reviewer of the exhibition compared Landseer’s work to that of the great Flemish artist Frans Snyders, ‘who never painted better than the heads of these dogs, could not have painted the dying traveller near so well, and never gave half the historical interest and elaboration to any of his pictures, unassisted by Rubens, as this possesses.’

Trained by his father, Landseer was regarded as a child prodigy. Formally admitted to the Royal Academy schools at the age of thirteen in 1816, by the following year he was exhibiting both at the Royal Academy and the Society of Painters in oil and watercolours. His first royal commission came in 1836 when he painted Princess Victoria’s pet spaniel, Dash, as a birthday present commissioned by her mother, the Duchess of Kent. He would become the young queen’s favourite artist, and give her drawing lessons. Landseer’s success and popularity was partly attained through the engravings of his work, which spread his fame throughout the world. The artist’s prints had been widely circulated in France from the 1830s onwards, and at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1855, his pictures greatly impressed French critics and the public. The art critic Théophile Gautier reflected that ‘Landseer gives his beloved animals soul, thought, poetry, and passion. What worries him is […] the very spirit of the beast, and in this respect there is no painter to match him’ (Les Beaux-Arts en Europe, Paris, 1855, I, pp. 72-7, cited in R. Ormond, op. cit., p. 31). He was one of the very few foreigners awarded a gold medal in the exhibition.

Ormond notes of Landseer’s unrivalled position as the greatest animal painter of the nineteenth Century, ‘As an animal painter Landseer stands on his own. Landseer’s links are with the genre and literary painters of the period in his ability as a storyteller; like theirs, his pictures are concerned with moralities and feelings. The image of the dog that Landseer presents has parallels in contemporary literature; dogs figure largely in the novels of Sir Walter Scott and Charles Dickens, for example, as creatures of feeling and intelligence... Landseer’s detailed anatomical knowledge - his wonderful feeling for the character and texture of animal life - satisfied the quasi-scientific outlook of his audience, while his visual stories allowed uninhibited enjoyment of loving and faithful dogs in a wide range of dramatic situations.’ (ibid., p. 94).

A smaller version of this composition, considered to be a finished preparatory study for the present canvas, was sold at Christie’s New York, 6 December 1996, lot 68. A preparatory drawing, showing the standing dog with his back to the viewer, will be offered at Christie’s, London, 8 December 2017, lot 297 (fig. 1).

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