Depicted along with brushes and charcoal pencils and a quill pen, the piece of bread is just another artist tool—its purpose is for erasing instead of nourishment. But someone forgot to tell the mouse. He sits in the foreground completely engrossed in sating himself, completely oblivious of the two dogs he shares the space within the frame. The mouse, the St. Bernard and the be-belled Maltese—this painting’s star—are the work of Sir Edwin Landseer, Queen Victoria’s favorite artist and one of history’s greatest animal painters—although his name may be best recognized for his bronze sculptures of the lions at the base of Nelson’s Column in London’s Trafalgar Square.
Landseer’s first studio was the great outdoors; almost before he could walk, his father, an engraver, showed him how to hold a pencil and showed him Nature was his teacher. Soon he was spending hours and hours on Hampstead Heath, and in the fields between the Heath and his home in Marylebone, rigorously observing and drawing the flora and the fauna: sheep, cows, goats and donkeys, and undoubtedly the ubiquitous field mice. A child prodigy, at age thirteen, he made his debut at the Royal Academy with two drawings, heads of a pointer and a mule. He was a master draughtsman who had studied the anatomy of mammals and birds, domestic and wild. But it was his all-encompassing understanding of an animal’s inner life—joy and fear and pain—that animated them on paper and on linen, that made his paintings popular among both ‘peasants and princes.’
The royal family first charged Landseer with being the chief portraitist of their pets: Islay, a Scots terrier; Lorie, the macaw; Dash, a King Charles spaniel; Eos, a greyhound, et. al. And once Queen Victoria and Prince Albert had children, Landseer painted them as well. He became the queen’s ‘persona gratissima,’ a friendship that lasted Landseer’s lifetime, that extended beyond the artist commissions. Charming and cheerful in spite of his bouts with debilitating depression, and reportedly a bit of a social climber, the painter was a frequent and honored guest at Victoria and Albert’s costume balls as well as at Balmoral, the royals’ Scottish estate. In turn he accompanied the queen on her walks; he taught her as he had been taught to sketch from nature. He also showed the queen and her prince how to make an etching.
Early on in their relationship, in 1839, Queen Victoria asked Landseer to paint the Maltese named Quiz, her mother’s dog, for her mother’s birthday. To make the story complete, he added the St. Bernard and the mouse. The queen and her mother (the Duchess of Kent) and the artist shared a deep sympathy for animals. A year later Quiz was exhibited at the Royal Academy, the same year that Queen Victoria granted royal status to Britain’s Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
Sources: Geraldine Norman, “Art Market: Animal magnetism: Queen Victoria’s favourite painter, Edwin Landseer,” The Independent [UK], March 13, 1994; Katharine MacDonogh, Reigning Cats and Dogs, 1999; James Alexander Manson, Sir Edwin Landseer, R.A., 1902; Algernon Graves, Catalogue of the Works of the Late Sir Edwin Landseer, R.A.
(Image: Quiz, 1839, by Edwin Henry Landseer, the Royal Collection, reproduced for non-commercial use only.)