William Strutt perhaps best known as the earliest and foremost history painter of Australian subjects, was very much a product of the mid nineteenth century artistic tradition. He was the first recorded Royal Academy trained artist to come to Australia, and certainly the most educated to arrive on these shores. born in Devon into a family of artists, he first trained in London and then in 1839 travelled to Paris to attend the Ecole des Beaux-Arts where he studied under Vernet and Delaroche. He saw in 1850 an opportunity to broaden his horizons and experiences by migrating to Australia, where initially he found work in Melbourne as an illustrator and later as a painter in both Australia and New Zealand. During his time in Australia he did not achieve the acclaim that he was seeking or possibly deserved. He returned to Great Britain in 1862 where he began a successful career that included the continuation of his rendering of Australian history paintings such as Black Thursday, February 6th 1851, and Bushrangers, Victoria, Australia, 1852 painted in 1887.
Strutt worked at a time when the professional artist realisded that a good living could be made by understanding the tastes dictated by the day. A growing middle class, and therefore a growing market, was becoming increasingly sophisticated and confident in what they wanted from the paintings they were willing to purchase. The nineteenth century art buyer was more aware of what was being painted by the recognised artists of the day. This was due to the exposure to a growing number of pictorial representations with the invention of modern printing methods and with the opening of public art galleries and salons.
The child as subject had become increasingly popular in Great Britain in the middle of the nineteenth century primarily because it was so preferred by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. The Queen having given birth nine times from 1840 to 1857 adored paintings of children, and commissioned numerous pictures that used her own children as models by artists such as Winterhalter. The various paintings of the Royal children were widely reproduced leading to this genre having a greater market and resulting in artists turning to it as a subject matter.
Under the Angel's Wing is a charming and evocative picture, sentimental and sweet it can't but touch at the heartstrings of the viewer. "In mid-Victorian England, pictures of biblical subjects were immensly popular. Strutt, in search for inspiration now turned to the Old Testiment, frequently combining biblical subjects with animals. His first picture of this type was Peace (in the collection of Brecon Cathedral, Wales).... This painting was reproduced in photogravure in 1896 and according to Strutt sold over one million copies." (H Curnow, William Strutt, Sydney, 1980, p. 50). Peace, Strutt's most widely recognised painting internationally, depicts a small beautiful central child surrounded by a plethora of animals, from lion to lamb, calmed by the child's innocence and beauty. The model for this work was Madeleine Clark, the daughter of Strutt's beloved daughter Rosa. Madeleine, along with the sister Adelaide, is also the model for Under the Angel's Wing.
The line between the two very popular artistic themes of the nineteenth century - religion and sentiment has become blurred in this work, making the image attractive to a wide audience. In this technically beautiful picture there is at once the innocence and sweetness of childhood combined with the benevolence and care of God, it remains an endearing message.