The Art of the Sublime

ISBN 978-1-84976-387-5

Sublime Animals: Briton Riviere’s Beyond Man’s Footsteps

Diana Donald

Briton Riviere was the most successful British painter of animal subjects in the later nineteenth century, and was inevitably compared with his predecessor, Edwin Landseer (1802–1873).1 However, his art differed from Landseer’s in its scope: it included not just sentimental dog paintings but depictions of historical, religious and mythic themes that gave a greater role to human protagonists and sometimes highlighted contemporary social concerns. All these aspects are represented in Tate’s collection of his works. Such variations in register are an indication of the multi-faceted and often conflicting notions of animal behaviour and mentality current at the time. Having collaborated with Charles Darwin in illustrating his Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, published in 1872, Riviere was well aware of the naturalist’s theory that human physiology and psychology have their origins in animal behaviour.2 Through evolution, humans and other species are thus inextricably connected.
Briton Riviere 'Beyond Man's Footsteps' exhibited 1894
Briton Riviere
Beyond Man's Footsteps exhibited 1894
Tate N01577

At first sight, Beyond Man’s Footsteps c.1893–4 (Tate N01577, fig.1) seems to escape this emphasis on the interplay between humans and other species. It is an image of the Arctic as a pure and untouched space: one of the few places on earth that still resist human invasion. Although Riviere had never been there, he sought to give the impression that one could wander into this imagined world. Our eyes traverse the freely painted foreground to reach a lone polar bear on the heights beyond. Aloof and turned away from us, it surveys the panorama spread out at its feet, and, in the words of one contemporary critic, ‘commands the vast solitude of the scene’.3 Riviere’s ‘poetic realisation’ of ‘quiet intensity’ has, one may think, many features of the sublime: the sense of great distances, the radiance of the suffused light, and the hostility of the terrain to any creature but the powerful white bear itself, as ruthless a killer as the jagged and precipitous icebergs.
In painting the Arctic, Riviere, who was ‘a great reader’, often taking his inspiration from books,4 was certainly conscious of the emotive national myths that surrounded polar exploration in the nineteenth century. The disappearance of Sir John Franklin’s expedition on a voyage to discover the North-West Passage in the late 1840s had prompted many rescue attempts, which in turn gave rise to exciting literary accounts of the bravery and suffering entailed by the travellers’ struggle with Arctic conditions.5 In fact, the vivid colours (apparently applied over wet white paint) and atmospheric effects revealed by a cleaning and conservation of Beyond Man’s Footsteps in 2011 seem to follow the explorers’ own descriptions of the strange polar landscape. Fridtjof Nansen’s narrative of The First Crossing of Greenland had been translated and published in 1890, and it seems very likely that Riviere read it. Through the summer evenings and nights, Nansen remembered, ‘when the sun sank lowest, and set the heavens in a blaze ... the wild beauty of the scene was raised to its highest’. At the foot of the ‘spires’ of huge, glittering icebergs, ‘there were marvellous effects and tints of blue, ranging to the deepest ultramarine ... a floating fairy palace, built of sapphires, about the sides of which brooks ran and cascades fell ... in fantastic forms’.6 In Riviere’s painting, likewise, the glowing orange-red disc of the sun with its purple penumbra is half visible above the horizon, and the sky shades from orange-yellow to greenish-yellow, blue and grey. Gold and bright blue touch the animal’s body and the peaks beyond – even the icicles under the ledge – and harmonise with the soft blues of the shadowed snow and the vivid turquoise of the streams descending the glacier.
Yet, as Riviere must have known, this ‘floating fairy palace’ was no paradise. Brutal mass slaughter by seal hunters, the cut-throat competition between them, and the remorseless cold and storms of the region had made Nansen feel that the ‘imperious laws of the ordinary struggle for existence’ explained by Darwin in Origin of Species (1859) here manifested themselves in an especially acute form.7 Thirty years before Riviere painted the work, Landseer’s Man Proposes, God Disposes 1864 (fig.2 Included in Tate Papers 13) had already pictured that struggle in graphic terms: two polar bears are seen ravenously devouring the bones of Franklin’s men while the scattered objects around them, the only surviving, pathetic relics of civilised human life, are contrasted with the harshness and gloom of the Arctic wilderness.8 However, Riviere eschewed the histrionics of Landseer’s vision, and, in this late work, moved closer to the essentially modern sensibility of contemporary ‘wildlife’ painters such as Richard Friese, Bruno Liljefors and Carl Rungius.9 Animals are no longer posed like human protagonists at the centre of a composition but apparently glimpsed by chance in their natural surroundings. They are often moving at the edge of the field of vision, seen across an empty, out-of-focus rising plane, in a quasi-photographic vision that has much in common with impressionism. Although man is ostensibly absent, arguably he remains in all-powerful control. The privileged, enticing sight of rare wild animals is that of a hunter, increasingly aware of the population declines caused by sport, and, more broadly, of the impact of western imperialism on animals and indigenous peoples alike. A book written and illustrated by John Guille Millais, A Breath from the Veldt (1895), pictures the ‘finer big game’ of southern Africa (again, generally without a human presence) in all their glory; but this is often as ‘In Days Gone By’. Such attractions are now ‘unhappily on the wane, for every day ... brings ... a growing throng of fortune-seekers and adventurers, who ... gradually drive the children of Nature farther and farther afield’. In Millais’s view, only the creation of reserves or captivity in zoos could save the animals from extinction.10 Realistic dioramas often designed by ‘wildlife’ artists, like those in the Biological Museum, Stockholm and the American Museum of Natural History, served a comparable purpose: these stuffed animals might at least (but with obvious irony) preserve the memory of their lost companions.11
Even the Arctic was succumbing to commercial pressures. Nansen reported that seals, originally unafraid of man, had, partly through ‘natural selection, resulting in survival of the fittest’, retreated inland – where they were, however, more liable to be killed by their ancient enemy, polar bears. Nor were the bears themselves exempt from this process of attrition: on the first page of his book Nansen showed himself or a companion sitting triumphantly astride one they had shot.12 Riviere’s bear, which, ironically, was studied from a living specimen in the London Zoological Gardens,13 may no longer be ‘beyond man’s footsteps’ but in desperate retreat from them, as we perceive this species to be today. The romance of the Arctic gives way to a more realistic, material vision, where the sublime survives as a Darwinian sense of the evolutionary marvels of nature, rather than as an expression of man’s spirituality.
Diana Donald was, until her retirement, Head of the Department of History of Art and Design at Manchester Metropolitan University.
See Walter Armstrong, ‘Briton Riviere, R.A.’, Art Annual, 1891, pp.1–32; Times obituary, 21 April 1920; Michael V.B. Riviere, Notes on the Huguenot Family of Riviere in England, North Walsham 1965;article on Riviere by Simon Reynolds in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography; and Poppy Mardall, ‘Briton Riviere (1840–1920) and the Unfixed Body’, British Art Journal, vol.8, no.1, Summer 2007, pp.57–62.
Diana Donald and Jane Munro (eds.), Endless Forms: Charles Darwin, Natural Science and the Visual Arts, exhibition catalogue, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven 2009, pp.198, 204–6.
Catherine Gasquoine Hartley, Pictures in the Tate Gallery, London 1905, pp.175–80.
Armstrong 1891, p.26.
See Diana Donald, ‘The Arctic Fantasies of Edwin Landseer and Briton Riviere: Polar Bears, Wilderness and Notions of the Sublime’, Tate Papers,, with references to earlier sources on Arctic exploration and imagery.
Fridtjof Nansen, The First Crossing of Greenland by Fridtjof Nansen, translated from the Norwegian by Hubert Majendie Gepp, B.A., 2 vols., London and New York 1890, vol.1, pp.2, 385, and compare pp.147–8. In 1893, the year when Riviere conceived Beyond Man’s Footsteps, Nansen set out on a widely reported expedition, aiming to reach the North Pole.
Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, London 1859, especially chapters 3 and 4. Nansen 1890, vol.1, pp.142, 156, 183–4.
See the sources listed in note 19 of my Tate Papers essay.
Allan Ellenius, Bruno Liljefors: Naturen som livsrum, Stockholm 1996; Donald and Munro (eds.) 2009, pp.102–9; Adam Duncan Harris, Wildlife in American Art: Masterworks from the National Museum of Wildlife Art, Jackson Wyoming 2009, pp.4–5, 145–55.
John Guille Millais (son of John Everett Millais), A Breath from the Veldt ... with Illustrations by the Author, London 1895, pp.8–9, 11, 236. For the context, see John M. MacKenzie, The Empire of Nature: Hunting, Conservation and British Imperialism, Manchester and New York, 1988; Nigel Rothfels, Savages and Beasts: The Birth of the Modern Zoo, Baltimore and London 2002.
Karen Wonders, Habitat Dioramas: Illusions of Wilderness in Museums of Natural History (Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis Figura Nova Series 25), Uppsala 1993; Karen Wonders, ‘Habitat Dioramas and the Issue of Nativeness’, Landscape Research, vol.28, no.1, 2003, pp.89–100; Harris 2009, chapter 4 on Carl Akeley.
Nansen 1890, vol.1, pp.1, 156–7, 184–9, 254–5.
Riviere is recorded as sketching at the zoo almost daily. See Mardall 2007, pp.57, 59.

How to cite

Diana Donald, ‘Sublime Animals: Briton Riviere’s Beyond Man’s Footsteps’, in Nigel Llewellyn and Christine Riding (eds.), The Art of the Sublime, Tate Research Publication, January 2013,, accessed 24 April 2024.