The Sad Sheep Painting – aka: ‘Anguish’ – is one of the NGV’s most popular; a well-known work by a largely forgotten artist, August Friedrich Schenck.
Art depicting farm animals became popular in Western Europe in the 19th century. There were a number of reasons for its rise.
Agriculture was modernising, new techniques were producing larger animals. At a time when farming was more central to people’s lives, particularly impressive specimens were celebrated: awarded at royal shows and reported on in the press.
Wealthy landowners began to commemorate their livestock with a portrait. Often the farmers appeared in the pictures themselves, looking proudly at their prize sheep or cow.
Many artists supplemented their income with animal paintings.
The 19th century was also a time of scientific advances, many breakthroughs were made in the study of the natural world.
In 1859, Charles Darwin published his landmark work, ‘On the Origin of Species’. Outlining the theory of natural selection, Darwin posited that all animal species, including humans, were connected, traceable to common ancestors.
In 1872, he offered another insight. In ‘The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals’, Darwin proposed that many animals experienced complex emotions, and a sense of family between different generations; traits that had previously been considered exclusively human.
‘Darwin’s meticulous observations demonstrated that many emotional expressions are deeply rooted in our evolutionary history. This ground-breaking work challenged anthropocentrism and laid the foundation for a more inclusive view of the natural world.’
– Dr Paul Ekman, psychologist
Influenced by these ideas, groups were formed to improve animal welfare. Their lobbying led to the first anti-cruelty legislation in Europe and America.
Artists were inspired as well. Animal paintings, like much art in the later 19th century, grew in complexity, and began to include emotive elements.
Among the leading exponents was August Friedrich Schenck.
Schenck was born in Glückstadt, then part of Denmark, now Germany, in April 1828. His background was comfortable, and his parents intended him for a career in business.
But Schenck rebelled.
He left home at age 14 and took to the road, working for a time as a travelling merchant. During this period, in 1850, he met Ludowika Stapaczinska while visiting Warsaw, and the pair were soon married.
Later he became interested in art and, showing some ability, moved to Paris to study painting.
Schenck enrolled in the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts where Léon Cogniet would be his principal instructor. Cogniet had a strong reputation in the French arts community and would help foster the talent of many painters who subsequently found success.
Schenck was at home in the cosmopolitan city, gaining French citizenship and learning to speak several languages. He first exhibited his work publicly in 1855, and in 1857 was included in the ‘Paris Salon’, then Europe’s most prestigious art exhibition.
As his style began to develop, Schenck showed a particular skill for painting animals. A nature lover, this reflected his personality.
‘He is one of those originals, of a species not yet extinct, who prefers dogs to men, and finds more sweetness in sheep than in women.’
– ‘Figaro’ magazine, contemporary profile of the artist
A painting from 1862 highlights Schenck’s early approach. Called ‘Summer Time’, this depicts two children and a farm dog, playing alongside a small group of sheep.
It is a wholesome scene, the work of someone with an affinity for animals. But it also hints at the interior lives of the subjects: the sheep cluster together, and regard one another, as they appear to show affection for each other.
1862 was the year Schenck and his wife moved to Écouen, north of Paris. This was a rural community, home to several other artists, and the nearby farms provided inspiration.
Schenck was particularly fascinated by sheep, who became his most common subject.
‘Sheep are not the mindless, docile creatures that they are often portrayed as. They are intelligent, social animals with a wide range of emotions.’
– Temple Grandin, animal behaviouralist
Schenck observed this complexity firsthand and included it in his work. He also wanted to provoke an emotional response from his audience.
In the 1870s, he began producing darker, more forbidding paintings, often showing sheep in danger or distress.
In 1873, Schenck produced ‘Lost: Souvenir of Auvergne’, which showed a flock of sheep panicking in a snowstorm. It was a dramatic painting with an element of danger, the sheep filling a role more commonly taken by a tragic human figure.
The piece was displayed at the Salon that year, and much discussed. Other distressed animal paintings would follow.
In 1878, Schenck produced what would become his signature piece, ‘Anguish’. This shows a ewe standing over the body of her dead lamb: eyes pointed upward, the sheep exhales visibly, signalling its despair.
The central image calls to mind a mother mourning the death of a child. But the harsh edge of nature is not far away; a murder of crows watches on, waiting for their chance to make a meal of the deceased lamb.
A metre and a half tall, and over two metres high, ‘Anguish’ makes quite an impression on its audience.
It is a dramatically sad painting, not shy about its intentions; this is not a subtle work. But highly effective in its ambition to engender empathy.
The ewe shows human traits not just with its emotional response to death, but also its helplessness before nature. Again, Schenck has put a sheep in a recognisably human situation and forced his audience to consider the connection.
‘No matter what your response is, [this] is a work that makes people stop in their tracks.’
– Ted Gott, Senior Curator, NGV
‘Anguish’ was displayed at the Salon in 1878 and helped burnish Schenck’s reputation. By this time, he was well known across Europe and commercially successful, as animal paintings remained popular.
In 1879, ‘Anguish’ was recommended for purchase to the National Gallery Victoria (NGV) by Alfred ‘Taddy’ Thompson.
Thompson was a former Victorian squatter, who had made a fortune as a farmer and then retired to England. In 1866, he was retained as a causal agent of the NGV and asked to keep his eye out for works the gallery, then in its infancy, could purchase.
Why Thompson was selected for this role is something of a mystery. He had no background in the arts, and his recommendations would subsequently be criticised as mediocre.
It may have been his farming background that drew him to ‘Anguish’, which he viewed at the Salon. Thompson’s recommendation was accepted, and the painting purchased for 1200 pounds, arriving in Victoria by ship in 1880.
The popularity of animal paintings waned as the 19th century wore on, and more radical styles of art took precedence.
August Schenck died in Écouen on New Year’s Day, 1901, the first day of the new century. A street in the town was named for him.
His works are held in a number of public galleries, most notably the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan.
In the twentieth century critical opinion turned against Schenck, and other animal painters, their works now viewed as overly sentimental and kitsch. The art world is famously fickle, and Schenck fell out of fashion.
His name is not widely known now, and biographical details are difficult to track down. In a copy of the NGV’s official catalogue I have from the 1950s, listing all the gallery’s major works, ‘Anguish’ is not even mentioned.
It remains popular with the punters though: a 2011 poll, held to determine the public’s favourite NGV artworks, placed ‘Anguish’ in the top ten, alongside Picasso, Pissarro and Hokusai.