Landseer’s sketches of performers face, in more ways than one, in two directions. Some were executed from life, from the wings of theatres, or in drawing rooms and music rooms. However, some were produced as, themselves, salon performances-almost like a very high level game of charades, when he was asked-‘Show us, what is so-&-so like?’. This does call to mind the great figures such as Vigée-le Brun, running their salons whilst painting and drawing in public.
Right from the beginning of his career, the sheer virtuosity of Landseer’s depiction of the natural forms was noted. In 1821, Géricault prepared a report on that year’s exhibition at the Royal Academy for Horace Vernet. He particularly noted the work of the 18-year old Edwin Landseer, a rat-catching scene. Three years later, Landseer’s cruel The Cat’s Paw was acclaimed by The Examiner the ‘Shakespeare of animal expression.’
Marina Warner reports that the young Princes Victoria thought him:
‘ “Certainly the cleverest artist there is”, and examining his work through a magnifying glass, could not get over his exquisite handling of detail. They made friends, and she and Albert would sometimes call on the painter in his studio to look at his latest work, or help him with an impromptu sitting for one of their numerous commissions.’
Edwin Landseer’s drawings of Paganini in performance, give a powerful impression of the impact of his physicality and stage manner. As time passed, Landseer was tempted to render these lightning sketches as caricature, which he had eschewed before. As I studied Landseer’s sketches, I came to the conclusion that the reason for the bizarre shape of the violin that Paganini is that perhaps the only violin which Landseer had ever been close to was a dancing master’s kit, or pochette.
Nearly every artist that drew and painted Paganini in the United Kingdom became absorbed with his extraordinary anatomy, post particularly his hand; Landseer paid particular attention in this regard. He had been encouraged to take anatomy very seriously, indeed to study dissection, by his teacher, the ultimately suicidal Benjamin Haydon.
In July 1832, Haydon himself wrote to Paganini:
July 4th ‘Without the high honour of being personally to you, permit me to express my rapture at your performance last night. Such tones I never heard before, and two or three times, I looked with a sort of incredulity at any instrument being used to make them. They were like the Heavenly moanings of some Seraphim being, too deeply touched to express its sensibilities by Words! May every prosperity and happiness reward such exquisite Genius.’ BR Haydon
Haydon left one of the most striking evocations of London street life at the time of his visit. His Punch or May Day (1835-Tate Gallery London) depicts the hurly burly of the Marylebone Road, next to St Marylebone church. This was only a block from the Nash Terraces of the Regents park and the Crescent, where so many of Paganini’s friends and associates in London lived, and makes it easier to understand why the Genoan violinist might have at once been overwhelmed by the attentions of Londoners.
By the 1850’s and 1860’s Landseer’s talents and connectsion had garnered him a large income of £6000 per annum. He, like Leighton, was ennobled, made a baronet. Artists of his generation were able to achieve social status far above that available to Gainsborough and Cosway. Everyone, it seemed knew his work, Elizabeth Barrett, was too sick to leave her family home on Wimpole Street much, but was acquatinted with the work of Landseer and Turner, just as she knew that English composers could not be compared to the genius of Felix Mendelssohn.
Christina Rossetti sought out his work at the 1864 Royal Academy Exhibition:
‘What a grand Artic picture that is by Sir Edwin Landseer, and are no his Piper and a pair of Nutcrackers delightful?…Simeon Solomon’s Deacon is a fine thing, and so is Whistler’s Wapping, and so (in my eyes) is John Brett’s small Wave picture in one corner of the miniature room.’’
Crossing the Channel-British and French Painting in the Age of Romanticism, Patrick Noon, Pp.160-1
Queen Victoria’s Sketchbook, Marina Warner, Book Club Associates, London, 1979, Pp.98-9
MS Eng 1331(20)vol XVII, 130)
The Spirit of Britain, Roy Strong, Hutchinson, P.540
Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Margaret Forster, Flamingo, London, 1990, P.120
Christina Rosetti-A Literary Biography , Jan Marsh, Pimlico, London, 1994, P.208