The picture is a small version, dated 1889, of one that Riviere exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1888 (Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney). Another small version, also dated 1889, was sold at Sotheby's Belgravia on 16 November 1976, lot 80 (illustrated in catalogue). The existence of these reduced replicas is no surprise since the original version was immensely popular and praised in almost every review of the RA exhibition.
The success of the image was predictable, combining as it does two concepts that held an enormous appeal for the Victorians, canine devotion and medieval chivalry. Riviere had chosen the subject as the inheritor of the mantle of Sir Edwin Landseer, specialising in animal subjects with a strong element of anthropomorphism. In fact Landseer had already treated it in a different context in his famous painting The Old Shepherd's Chief Mourner, exhibited at the RA in 1837 (Sheepshanks Collection, Victoria and Albert Museum). In both pictures the body of a departed master is mourned by a faithful dog almost visibly shedding tears of grief. As Robert Rosenblum puts it, 'If only, the message reads, human beings, in this or any other age, could be counted on for such selfless and prayerful devotion!'. But a dramatic change has also occurred. The lonely and indigent crofter who lies in the coffin in Landseer's picture is replaced by a fallen medieval hero in full armour, while the crofter's working collie becomes a noble and all too soulful bloodhound. The result is not only to push the image a long way up the social scale but to substitute for the true pathos of the Landseer (analysed at length and warmly commended by Ruskin in Modern Painters) a dose of heady but rather obvious romance.
In fact, come to think of it, it is surprising that Landseer himself did not paint Riviere's subject; he was quite capable of doing so, and it was perfectly tailored to his talents. We might say he missed a trick, leaving a gap which the younger artist had no hesitation in filling.
The recumbent knight lies so stiffly on his catafalque that he resembles the carved effigy of a knight on a medieval tomb. It is almost as if the dog on which such figures often rest their feet has jumped down to become 'the fallen hero's chief mourner'.
G.F. Watts created a comparable image in his painting Sic Transit (fig. 1). Begun in 1891 and exhibited at Munich two years later, it shows a corpse (facing the other way to Riviere's knight) lying on a bier covered with a shroud. Objects symboblic of worldly power and pleasure - a shield, a golden cup, a lute, a book, etc - litter the foreground, while the words of an old German proverb alluding to the futility of accumulating possessions are inscribed above. While Riviere's painting appeals to our love of dogs and medieval romance, Watts delivers a portentous sermon on the vanity of human aspirations and the finality of death. Watts's picture was never exhibited at the Royal Academy, but it is safe to say that if it had been it would not have been as popular as Riviere's, not would the artist have found himself painting replicas.
Just as Requiescat has its more serious counterpart in Watts's Sic Transit, so it has a frivolous parallel. Robert Rosenblum compares it to that triumph of kitsch, His Master's Voice by Francis Barraud (1856-1924), painted in 1899, bought by the Gramophone Company, and destined to become one of the most familiar visual images of the twentieth century. The terrier depicted was called Nipper. We can just imagine this being the name of Landseer's collie, but it would certainly not have been that of Riviere's bloodhound.
For Riviere's drawing of this noble animal, presumably made in connection with the original version, see lot 85.