Animal painting was extremely popular in the 19th Century.
In a book ‘Treasures of the Art in Great Britain’ published in 1854-7 the author comments, ’In no country is so much attention paid to the different types of animals as in England, &, although a mercenary reason may be assigned in the cases of horses, oxen, and sheep, yet a feeling for the beauty of these animals is very general’.
Animal portraiture was well paid, although it attracted very few top of the league artists of the time. One such, Ben Marshall is quoted as saying, ‘many a man will pay me 50gns for painting his horse who thinks 10gns too much for painting his wife’.
An artist specialising in this genre could expect a good constant supply of work and a steady income.
In the 1780’s & 90’s once the fashion for farm animal portraits became established it was an excellent addition to the portfolios of artists who had up to that point been limited to horses & dogs.
Breeders went to great lengths to produce ‘improved’ animals with refined heads, and bone, good straight backs, well- formed hind quarters & plenty of fat. When they commissioned a portrait of their favourite beast to impress their friends, clients & the world at large they would encourage the artist to emphasise the creature’s best features. Whether the wishes were adhered to depended very much on the integrity of the artist, but it must be born in mind that at this time animals could be ‘fed up’ for a great many years before reaching their potential & also fat was considered an absolute pre-requisite of the time. Fat meant profit as it could be used for a great many uses apart from food. For example as oil for a poor man’s lantern etc. Patrons had very specific ideas about how an animal should be portrayed. They required that they were shown in profile so that the size of the animal and its proportions and beauty would be fully appreciated.
Artists who undertook these works ranged from the highly accomplished & well paid which record accurate images of what was being bred at the time, to men who were not of any great calibre & may even have been local od-job men who could turn their hand to most things. These images are more naïve but non- the- less delightful and charming.
Livestock breeders regarded these paintings as important promotional material for their celebrated animals. They would have been displayed in their grand country houses & farmhouses to impress visiting agriculturalists. Some artists were commissioned to paint the same animal several times to enable not only the breeder but future owners of the animal or its offspring to have a lasting image of their most prized possession. Owners liked their animals to be painted when at the very ‘height of perfection’ which quite often entailed the artist going along to record their likeness prior to an important sale or even before the animal was sent for slaughter so that they had a record to keep for ever. Only the most exceptional animals were painted.
One of the earliest animals of the genre to be portrayed in this way was the ‘Lincolnshire Ox’ by George Stubbs in 1791.
These paintings are more than likenesses of the animals, they are historic documents. They show us farm buildings & landscapes of a vanished age. Agriculture was at the time the premier industry and livestock was a vital part of that business.