The Art of the Sublime

ISBN 978-1-84976-387-5

Sublime Subject: Edwin Henry Landseer’s Deer and Deer Hounds in a Mountain Torrent (‘The Hunted Stag’)

Diana Donald

Sir Edwin Henry Landseer 'Deer and Deer Hounds in a Mountain Torrent ('The Hunted Stag')' ?1832, exhibited 1833
Sir Edwin Henry Landseer
Deer and Deer Hounds in a Mountain Torrent ('The Hunted Stag') ?1832, exhibited 1833
Tate N00412

This was the first of Landseer’s many compositions showing the life of red deer in the Scottish Highlands (Tate N00412, fig.1).1 A stag is beset by two deerhounds in a fast-flowing beck among jagged rocks.2 It has wounded one dog with its antlers, but the other dog has fastened onto its ear and is pinning it down. The exhausted stag tries to keep its hold on the stones, but is being dragged inexorably towards the edge of the precipice. Its upward gaze expresses agony of mind, like that of a doomed human being. Indeed, it would have reminded Landseer’s audience, if only subconsciously, of the heavenward pleading of martyred saints and victims of catastrophe pictured in historic art. But no hope or sympathy is likely in this bleak mountain landscape, blackened by rainclouds. Nature is cruel, and life depends on a ruthless struggle between antagonists. It was this conviction that made Landseer’s pictures seem so modern and arresting to the Victorian public. Similar ideas would prove fundamental to the notion of ‘survival of the fittest’ later developed by Herbert Spencer, Alfred Russel Wallace and Charles Darwin.3 Indeed, Landseer could have found the theory already formed in Charles Lyell’s recently published three-volume work, Principles of Geology (1830–3). Lyells stated that in the course of the earth’s unimaginably long history, species have successively become extinct, casualties of the endless fluctuation in conditions or of the ‘continual strife’ between them.4 The anthropomorphism of Landseer’s stag, in turn, may have reminded thoughtful spectators that humans, like other animals, must struggle for mastery and survival.
The deer’s death is thus invested with a pathos that is new in European animal painting. It becomes a tragedy that moves and involves the spectator and the scale of that tragedy elicits a sublime response. We are placed near to the action, as though suspended over the unseen chasm, and the physical details of the stag’s glazed eye, rough hair and glistening muzzle, as well as the rock surface and spray (the pigment here laid on with a palette knife), have a tactile immediacy that reflects the artist’s first-hand knowledge of his subject. Landseer’s friend Frederick William Keyl recorded that the artist could imitate the very ‘voice & gesture & expression’ of deer.5 Landseer’s contemporary landscape sketches – like Loch Avon and the Cairngorm Mountains c.1833(Tate N05777), with its grand effect of stormy light – also show his response to such wild and lonely scenes.6 This vividness of realisation served a poetic purpose. One critic wrote that the ‘nobility’ and ‘courage’ of the stag, this ‘grand isolated being’, together with ‘the sublimity of its home’, ‘elevated’ Landseer to ‘a higher level of being’.7 There are here many features of the sublime, as defined by Edmund Burke and other theorists: the apprehension of vast scale, darkness, obscurity and solitude; wild, untamed power and a sense of horror. To quote Burke, from his highly influential Philosophical Enquiry, ‘Whatever is fitted ... to excite the ideas of pain, and danger ... whatever is in any sort terrible ... is a source of the sublime’.8 Long after other nineteenth-century artists had moved on to express sublimity in other, less melodramatic ways, Landseer’s vision of nature would continue to convey extreme violence and despair.
Analysis of the subject reveals a problematic relation between image and actuality. Deer and Deerhounds corresponds closely to the episodes described in contemporary accounts of field sports in the Scottish Highlands, notably William Scrope’s The Art of Deer-Stalking (1838), which Landseer and his brothers illustrated.9 Either a stag would be stalked by the shooters and their gillies, or beaters would drive the whole herd past the concealed guns. Only when an animal had been wounded would the dogs be released to bring it down. The stricken stag usually ‘went to soil’, that is, it sought refuge in a lake or river, as we see here. One of the shooters would then approach and administer the coup de grace. But there is no overt human presence in Landseer’s painting – other than our spectatorship. And rather than seeing the accoutrements of the modern field sportsman, we see a scene that evokes ancient traditions of hunting. In fact, the deerhounds belong to a venerable breed cherished by the celebrated author Sir Walter Scott,10 and Scott’s description of a deer hunt in The Lady of the Lake (1810) was one source for the painting. Scrope’s book similarly evoked Scotland’s ‘Ossianic’ and feudal past, in a highly romanticised account of the sport. The reality was less heroic. The great shooting estates, supposedly pristine wildernesses, had often been created by the enforced removal of crofters in the Highland clearances, and the departure of the sheep farmers who had replaced the crofters. Alongside the great landowners, there were legions of wealthy industrialists who acquired lodges or rented shooting rights, and by the later 1830s were descending on the Highlands by coach, steamboat or train.11 Their excursions were anything but primitive, involving increasingly powerful and accurate rifles and telescopes as well as an army of servants to provision the sportsmen and to locate, retrieve and carry home the game.
Landseer was a frequent guest of aristocratic families in the shooting season, and from the early 1840s Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, too, commissioned several hunting subjects – confident that the artist was himself a knowledgeable and passionately keen sportsman.12 Later, his embarrassed literary apologists tried to represent this enthusiasm as artistic rather than sporting: ‘in truth’, F.G. Stephens explained, ‘he often carried the gun as an introduction to the sketch-book’.13 Landseer himself admitted to divided feelings: his relish for what a modern writer has called ‘the sensuality of killing’14 militated against his agonised sympathy and identification with the quarry: a conflict of feelings which one friend saw as a projection of Landseer’s own struggle with mental illness.15 It would thus be possible to interpret his treatment of these subjects not as an expression of the sublime understood as spiritual exaltation, but as sublimation in the psychoanalytic sense, transmuting inglorious deeds into cosmic fatalism.
However, this was not just a private psychological drama. Landseer’s paintings were widely exhibited, and were universally familiar from prints of all kinds, from fine engravings to cheap woodcuts. Thus their imagery was subjected to criticism by people of diverse views, including many who abominated field sports. For them, it was difficult to detach the beauty of Landseer’s pictorial effects from the cruelty he exposed.16 The Art-Journal published a full-page engraving of Deer and Deerhounds in 1851, as part of ‘The Vernon Gallery’. Yet the author of the accompanying commentary complained that ‘a wrong is done to human nature’ when such subjects were painted, as though ‘mankind ... delight in witnessing representations of mental or bodily suffering, whether endured by their own species or by the brute creation’.17 The popularity of works like Paul Delaroche’s Execution of Lady Jane Grey 1833 (National Gallery, London),18 which is exactly contemporary with Landseer’s picture, suggests that pathetic victimhood did in fact fascinate the nineteenth-century public. It was Landseer’s achievement to make the analogous sufferings of man’s kindred, the ‘brute creation’, into such powerful and memorable images.
Diana Donald was, until her retirement, Head of the Department of History of Art and Design at Manchester Metropolitan University.
A date of c.1830–2 could be inferred from Landseer’s information to its first owner, the rich businessman Robert Vernon, that it was painted in Scotland. Vernon presented it to the National Gallery in 1847 and it was transferred to the Tate Gallery in 1900. Robin Hamlyn, Robert Vernon’s Gift: British Art for the Nation 1847, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1993, p.52. Vernon was a ‘job master’, hiring out carriages and horses.
Richard Ormond, Sir Edwin Landseer, exhibition catalogue, Philadelphia Museum of Art 1981, p.81; Richard Ormond, The Monarch of the Glen: Landseer in the Highlands, exhibition catalogue, National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh 2005, pp.54–5, 130; Diana Donald, Picturing Animals in Britain 1750–1850, New Haven and London 2007, pp.96–8, 299.
Diana Donald and Jane Munro (eds.), Endless Forms: Charles Darwin, Natural Science and the Visual Arts, Cambridge, New Haven and London 2009, pp.91–3.
Charles Lyell, Principles of Geology, third edn, 4 vols., London 1834, vol.3, pp.36–7.
Papers of Frederick William Keyl from 1866; Royal Archives, Windsor, VIC/ADD X 14/20/1.
Ormond 2005, pp.87–9.
Cosmo Monkhouse, The Works of Sir Edwin Landseer, R.A., London 1879, p.154.
Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, second edn, London 1759, p.58.
William Scrope, The Art of Deer-Stalking, new edn, London 1897.
Ormond 2005, pp.22–4; Donald 2007, pp.128–9.
William Howitt, The Rural Life of England, 2 vols., London 1838, vol.1, pp.50–63. T.C. Smout, ‘Landseer’s Highlands’, in Ormond 2005, pp.13–17.
Trevor R. Pringle, ‘The Privation of History: Landseer, Victoria and the Highland Myth’, in Denis Cosgrove and Stephen Daniels (eds.), The Iconography of Landscape, Cambridge 1988, pp.142–61; Ormond 2005, pp.120–4; Donald 2007, pp.296–7.
Frederic George Stephens, Memoirs of Sir Edwin Landseer, London 1874, p.108.
John M. MacKenzie, The Empire of Nature: Hunting, Conservation and British Imperialism, Manchester and New York 1988, p.33.
[Anne Thackeray, Lady Ritchie], ‘Sir Edwin Landseer’, Cornhill Magazine, vol.29, 1874, pp.81–100 (p.100); Ormond 1981, p.17.
Diana Donald, ‘Pangs Watched in Perpetuity: Sir Edwin Landseer’s Pictures of Dying Deer and the Ethos of Victorian Sportsmanship’, in The Animal Studies Group (eds.), Killing Animals, Urbana and Chicago 2006, pp.50–68.
Art-Journal, 1851, p.4; the work was engraved by J. Cousen.
For more on this painting, see Stephen Bann, Linda Whiteley et al, Painting History: Delaroche and Lady Jane Grey, exhibition catalogue, National Gallery, London 2010.

How to cite

Diana Donald, ‘Sublime Subject: Edwin Henry Landseer’s Deer and Deer Hounds in a Mountain Torrent (‘The Hunted Stag’)’, in Nigel Llewellyn and Christine Riding (eds.), The Art of the Sublime, Tate Research Publication, January 2013,, accessed 24 April 2024.