Landseer began making animal studies as a small boy and although later known as the English Snyders, he was more than one of England's most gifted sporting artists: without betraying their natures, he was able to use animals to comment on complex social and historical issues. He was elected an associate of the Royal Academy in 1826 and a full academician in 1831. Much admired by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, and knighted in 1850, he was then Britain's most famous artist. His images circulated widely as engravings, and his painting of a stag, The Monarch of the Glen
(private collection), which was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1851, became the most famous of all images of the Scottish Highlands.
Apparently the precocious Landseer’s practice as a young man was to make copies after the old masters: his estate sale lists studies after Ter Borch, De Hooch, and Steen, as well as two after Rubens. It seems likely that over the winter of 1824–25, Landseer copied Wolf and Fox Hunt
, now attributed to Rubens with the participation of his workshop (The Met, 10.73
). The dealer John Smith had brought the picture to England from Paris in 1820 and sold it to Alexander Baring, later first Lord Ashburton, in 1824. Landseer referred to this copy after Rubens when preparing his first major history piece, The Hunting of Chevy Chase
(Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery), exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1826.
Landseer first visited Scotland in 1824, and either that summer or the next, the Duke of Atholl commissioned Death of the Stag in Glen Tilt
(Blair Charitable Trust, Blair Castle) and the Duke of Bedford thereafter ordered The Hunting of Chevy Chase
. While the former is an animal and seigneurial portrait of the sort that would become Landseer’s specialty, the latter was something highly unusual for the young artist, a romantic evocation of Scottish late medieval border history inspired by Sir Walter Scott. He depended much on the example of Rubens, whose work he had copied with bravado, and on a light touch combined with exacting accuracy of color and detail. Many motifs from Rubens’s picture, notably the rough types at the center and the figure in red at the extreme left, were filtered through into Landseer’s medieval Scottish hunt scene. Landseer’s many skills did not extend to capturing figures in motion, and his composition, like Rubens’s, is given life by the vicious snarling animals in the foreground.
Louisa Mackenzie was the daughter of a Scottish landowner who in 1858 became the second wife of William Baring, second Baron Ashburton, whose family owned the Rubens. Louisa had been in love with Landseer and for the balance of his life remained an intimate friend. It is not surprising that as the dowager Lady Ashburton she would have wished to own Landseer’s panel, which might have been bought for her at the artist’s studio sale. At Lady Ashburton’s estate sale, in turn, the work was acquired for the Marquess of Northampton, her son-in-law, and descended to her granddaughter, thus remaining in the family for generations.
[2012; adapted from Baetjer 2009]