Huggins was admired for his naturalness and brilliancy of coloring as well as his fine execution of detail as evidenced in the present work. He has painted the leopards in such a sensuous manner they give the impression of powerful reality and their coats have a warm velvety sheen. Though painted in a detailed and meticulous manner, this composition is also stylish, with sophisticated subtle tones and a dramatic landscape in the distance complementing the scale of these magnificent animals.
Two Indian leopards are playing in a landscape, by the opening of a cave. As one stands on all fours bearing its teeth, the other lies on its back in the foreground in playful submission. This composition is based on Jacques-Laurent Agasse's Two Leopards playing in the Exeter Change Menagerie of 1808 (fig. 1; Christie's, London, 15 July 1988, lot 35). Agasse was an inspiration for many of Huggins' paintings of wild animals. Although of Swiss descent, Agasse first visited England around 1790 at the invitation of the Hon. George Pitt, later Lord Rivers, who became his most important patron. In 1800 Agasse moved to London and in 1803 began working at the menagerie at Exeter Change at the Strand, and continued to paint pictures of the wild animals until 1828 when the menagerie moved. He painted over 70 images of wild animals and his style in this genre influenced many contemporary English artists including James Ward.
In his article on Liverpool-born animal painters (Art Journal, 1904, pp. 219-21), E. Rimbault Dibdin praised Huggins as a master of his particular craft: 'Both as an executant in paint, and as a consummate expert in knowledge of animal form and character, Huggins was qualified to out-distance both Landseer and Ansdell'. Dibdin goes on to qualify Huggins's relative obscurity, arguing an 'odd temperament [that] kept him from taking the easy high road to success'.
Born in Liverpool, Huggins later studied art at the Mechanics Institute. At the age of fifteen, he won a prize for a painting entitled Adam's vision of the death of Abel. His first exhibit at the Royal Academy in 1842 was Androcles and the lion and his fame rests on his success as an animal painter, although he continued to paint religious and literary subjects. Huggins was devoted to animals and animal life and spent much time in study at the Zoological Gardens in Liverpool, and for a while, followed Wombwell's Menagerie from town to town. In 1847 Huggins was made an Associate of the Liverpool Academy and a full member in 1850. He later exhibited with the Secessionists at the Institute of Fine Art after 1857, as well as in London at the Riyak Academy, in Manchester, Dublin, Edinburgh and Glasgow. He was also a technical innovator, for which at the time he was much criticized but which now is evidence that he was ahead of his time. Instead of working in the conventional manner, from dark background to light, he glazed a smooth white millboard with rich transparent pigments through which the white background showed luminously.