The artist's talents were evident since his early years. He was only five years old when he started sketching dogs. His father had the notion that education was unnecessary, and could even harm the talent of an aspiring artist. He thus encouraged his son to draw more and excel in his art.
Edwin's father would take him to frequent walks in the fields, where he would sketch farm animals as they grazed. He would also take interest in drawing wild beasts, as depicted in one of his known early etching in 1809, " Heads of a Lion and a Tiger." While he etched the head of the lion, his brother etched the head of the tiger. By 1812, he had managed to execute seven more etchings. Edwin's talents were undoubtable, given that he had a very good grasp in etching and drawing in a variety of media such as pencil, pen, watercolour, and oil painting even before he was 12 years old.
Exhibition at Royal Exhibition and formal training
His unique artistic talent and love for drawing animals led to him being awarded the Silver Palette of the Society of Arts for drawing animals. One of his earlier influencers was Benjamin Robert Haydon, who gave him his dissections of a lion to study from. He also encouraged the young aspiring artist to study anatomy and artworks from other masters. Edwin had two of his paintings, 'Pointer bitch and puppy' and 'Mule' debut at the Royal Academy Exhibition in London. He even won the acclaim of the judges with the 'Pointer bitch and puppy' artwork that was recognized as the first dog picture to show character and individuality since the time of Hogarth. Edwin's formal training started at 15 years of age when he entered the Academy. He won the hearts of many with his charming appearance and talent. The President of the Academy even nicknamed him as his "little dog boy."
Edwin visited Sir Walter Scott at Abbotsford in 1824. He would make numerous artworks of the poet and his dog. This trip engaged Edwin's curiosity in the deer. He was also impressed by the mountains and lake scenery, which sparked his imagination. This has led to Edwin being particularly associated with Scotland from the many paintings he did of subjects there. Some of his famous paintings in Scotland include, An Illicit Whisky Still in the highlands, the Hunting of Chevy Chase, Rent Day in the Wilderness, and Monarch of the Glen.
Association with Nobles
Edwin was elected as an Associate of the Royal Academy when he was 24 years of age. He received full honours as an academician in 1831. During this same year, he exhibited 'High Life' and 'Low Life' at the British Institution. These pictures were a statement on the contrast classes in the society depicted in their dogs. Edwin would enjoy unimpeded success as he made his way through the echelons of society. His friends and patrons were noble families, with the Russell's featuring prominently. Edwin's first portrait was that of the Duchess of Bedford 'Keepsake' in 1823. He would further paint pictures of her children between that year and 1839. Other notable nobles that he painted include the Duke of Abercorn, Duke of Gordon, Countess of Blessington, Countess of Chesterfield, Viscount Melbourne, and Duke of Sutherland among others. His exemplary talent and magnificent artworks endeared him to the heart of Queen Victoria.
In 1839, he painted the first portrait of Queen Victoria, which was given to Prince Albert before their marriage. From 1939 to 1866, he was a constant presence at the palace where he frequently painted Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and their three children. He would also paint pets, gamekeepers, and even taught the Queen and her husband the art of etching. He was knighted by Queen Victoria in 1850, the same year he exhibited his piece 'A Dialogue at Waterloo' at the national gallery. It featured the Marchioness of Douro and the Duke of Wellington. Edwin became the first English artist to receive a gold medal from the Paris Universal Exhibition.
Mental Illness and Death
Edwin was elected as President of the Royal Academy in 1865 following the death of Sir Charles Eastlake. However, he declined the offer due to his declining mental health. The artist had experienced a breakdown after the death of his mother in 1840 and never seemed to have recovered from it. This was further aggravated by the failure of his royal family painting, and the railway accident in 1868 that left him with a scar on his forehead. He did manage to produce important artworks such as the 'Swannery Invaded by Eagles' and the grand lions in Trafalgar Square between his partial recovery and subsequent death. Edwin's last drawing was of a dog, while his last portrait was of the Queen before his death on 1 Oct 1873. He left three unfinished paintings, The Dead Buck, Nell Gwynne and Finding the Otter, which he made a wish for his friend John Everett Millais to finish them if he died without completing them. His burial took place on 11 Oct 1873 at St. Paul's Cathedral and was mourned widely in England.
While Edwin received much success and acclaim in his mastery portrayals of dogs, he did also show his expertise in painting many other animals. His artwork and depiction of animals had a poetic and imaginative quality that gave them a sense of moral dimension. His art is synonymous with the Victorian era and can be found in the Victoria and Albert Museum, Kenwood House, Tate Britain, and the Wallace Collection in London. His paintings of dogs were so popular and influential that Landseer became a variety name of a dog that features a mixture of black and white colours. Even though Edwin suffered from ill mental health and depression, he continued pursuing his passion, although not with the vigour of his earlier days.