Animals have been the subject of art since the Stone Age, but it was in the Victorian era that artists turned their attention to the domestic pet. Victorian animal paintings tell us much about the evolution of the appreciation of animals in the 19th century: a time of conflicting views, which saw extreme sentiment towards the household pet sit happily alongside popular tastes for hunting and taxidermy.
The greatest animal painter of the era, Sir Edwin Henry Landseer (1802-1873), was instrumental in fuelling the popularity of animal subjects in art. Landseer painted at a time when animals featured prominently in society, whether it be in rural communities, urban transport, or domestic circles. His animal images were newly accessible through popular engravings of the day and an increase in print reproduction, including The Landseer Gallery, a book of 45 steel engravings after Landseer, and serial publications such as the Illustrated London News.
Victorian audiences were also fascinated with the connections that could be forged between animals and human beings. As a result, there was new popularity for cartoon images in which animals were given human characteristics – dogs, for example, representing their owners’ personalities. The pinnacle of this was royal endorsement of domestic animals through Queen Victoria, and her love of dogs in particular. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were the first royals to document their large collection of domestic pets, commissioning Landseer to paint their favourite dogs.
The 19th century was also a turning point in how Western society viewed the treatment of animals, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals being founded in 1824. Towards the end of the century, organizations were being formed to combat vivisection and other scientific cruelties against animals.
Animal imagery from this era, therefore, gives a fascinating insight into the importance of animals in our relatively recent history – for commerce, recreation and transport – and also in the making of modern humanitarian attitudes.