Landseer's dog paintings of the 1830s are among his most celebrated works and Dignity and Impudence remains the most popular of all. Many, including this work, consist of commissioned, life-size 'portraits'; the rest are independent subjects, smaller in scale and usually with a narrative content. Here Landseer wittily contrasts the scale and character of a bloodhound called Grafton and a West Highland terrier called Scratch. Both dogs belonged to Jacob Bell, who commissioned the picture. The picture's composition parodies the Dutch portrait tradition, whereby the subject is framed by a window, with an arm or hand extending over the edge, just as the bloodhound's paw hangs over the edge of the kennel. Landseer draws attention to the dogs' 'human' characteristics: the soulful look and gentle dignity of the bloodhound is contrasted with the mischievous expression of the small terrier. Moreover, the larger dog is painted in smooth, variegated textures, while the smaller dog comes to life with a few jabbing and expressive brushstrokes.
Landseer juxtaposes different canine types in a similar way in two separate works, High life (Tate A00702) and Low life (Tate A00703). However, this picture marks a new type of subject in its comical treatment of the two dogs' relationship. Landseer went on to produce similar essays in the stately and the ridiculous in Lion and Dash (Badminton, Gloucestershire) and Lion Dog (Royal Collection), both dated around 1840. The former contrasts a Saint Bernard with a King Charles spaniel and the latter a Saint Bernard with a Maltese dog.
Grafton was an occasional visitor to several artists' studios in London. He was also a tenacious creature with a true fighting spirit. On one occasion he was locked in a stable with another dog. The two dogs took an instant dislike to each other and were found the next morning badly wounded and at opposite ends of the building. Bell was furious with the bloodhound and left him to die, but, against all odds, the dog recovered from his injuries. Bell clearly had a softer spot for the terrier, and, whereas he threatened to shoot Grafton if he dared to misbehave again, he made a bet with the owner of a poodle that Scratch was the more attractive dog. The issue was to be decided by Landseer himself, who, according to legend, took one look at Scratch and announced, without any prompting, 'Oh what a beauty!'
Richard Ormond, Sir Edwin Landseer, exhibition catalogue, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia 1982, pp.112-3, reproduced p.113, in colour.
Christopher Wood, Victorian Painting, London 1999, pp.22-3, reproduced p.23, in colour.