Sunday, June 14, 2009

Man Proposes, God Disposes

One of the iconic images of the Arctic Sublime, it was painted by an artist who had never travelled to the north, and whose best-known paintings were of royal dogs and ponies -- Sir Edwin Landseer -- in the strange twilight of his career. When in 1981 it was shown in the United States as part of a Landseer retrospective, New York Times art citic Hilton Kramer singled it out as the most stunning of his works, comparing it with other darkest moments of the Victorian age:
"'Man Proposes, God Disposes'" is Landseer’s 'Dover Beach' and with that painting, at least, he joins the ranks of those disabused Victorian prophets whom we still have ample reason to admire and heed."
As one of the gems of the Royal Holloway Collection at the University of London, it's part of a touring show set up to allow renovations to its original quarters; from now through July 26th this magnificent, unparalleled collection of Victorian art can be seen at the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, Connecticut. On June 25th, I'll be giving a gallery talk on Landseer's painting from 12:30 to 1 p.m.

So how did such a seemingly staid and sober artist such as Landseer, who, though renowned for his animal subjects, had always remained with the lines of domestic propriety, come to paint such a monstrous scene? In 1864, McClintock's news of the demise of Sir John Franklin's expedition was still fresh in the air, as was the controversy, ignited ten years earlier, over Dr. John Rae's evidence of cannibalism among Franklin's men. Such dark matter was inconceivable as the subject for a serious painting -- since GĂ©ricault's famous "Raft of the Medusa" (1818-1819) tastes, shall we say, were greatly changed. Maritime tragedies were meant to be seen through a spyglass dimly, distantly awesome and only alluded to by natural features; the storms of human malfeasance could cloud horizons but not confront the viewer's eye. Frederic Edwin Church had struck just the right tone three years earlier with his "Icebergs," which contained a lone, broken mast as a synecdoche of Franklin's tragic end: man made mast.

There's a mast in Landseer's painting too, with tattered remnants of a royal ensign clinging to its side -- but it's what comes before the mast that astounds. Two polar bears, their muzzles rippling with carniverous delight, are sitting down to a feast of dead explorers' bones. The bear on the right tosses a bone from a human ribcage, while on the left a second bear rips at the ensign. At that bear's side lie a broken telescope and lens-cap, its shattered state a metaphor of the blasted vision of the dead. When the painting was first shown in 1864, there could be no doubt of its intended subject. The Times spoke of "bones -- no need to ask whose," while the reviewer for the Illustrated London News was more impressionistic:
"Under the lurid sky of Arctic twilight, among the vast fantastic blocks of ice, green, or of livid pallor, save where faintly flushed with the long, level, rosy ray of the far-off dawn, we see over a hollow a solitary spar; and on the brink of this strange and awful grave -- for those are human ribs protruding, blanched and bare from summer heat or birds of prey."

Many felt it was in poor taste, and some of Landseer's private friends associated it with his increasingly difficult struggle with nervous anxiety. For much of the time before this painting, Landseer had been laboring, long and patiently, on the sculpted lions for the base of Nelson's Pillar in Trafalgar Square. The commission had used so much of his artistic and life-force that he was driven to nightmares, in one of which the lion pinned him to the ground, about to make a man-sized meal of him. Nevertheless, Landseer labored on, and perhaps in "Man proposes" found an outlet for this sense of being warily, wearily pursued by enormously powerful and relentless beasts.

Purchased some years later by Thomas Holloway, the British patent-medicine magnate, it took up a place of honor, as well as of anxeity, in the Picture Gallery in the Founder's Building of the Royal Holloway College. When the hall was used at term time for examinations, students were averse to sitting near it, so much so that it became a tradition for the porters to cover it with a cloth beforehand. And, curiously, it was in this same building that Anne Keenleyside, the forensic pathologist who first confirmed evidence of cannibalism from the bones recovered from NgLj-2 on King William Island, spent a postdoctoral fellowship, passing the hall on her way to and from her research without ever realizing how her work, and Landseer's strange vision, connected.

There are many other reasons to see the Royal Holloway -- Frith's Railway Station and Millais's "Princes in the Tower" among them -- but I would urge anyone who has the opportunity to see the Landseer. These bears do not often travel abroad, and there is nothing quite so chilling as seeing them there before you, only a few animal paces from your heart.


  1. I saw the painting during an Open University summer school at Royal Holloway. If I'd known then what I know now, I'd have paid much closer attention to it........

  2. Thanks for letting us know which collection the painting is from. Unfortunately I am away from New England for the summer, but hopefully I'll make it to London and it will be back on display. Best of luck at your talk; I wish I could be there!

  3. Any chance that you or the expedition will make its way to Canada?

  4. I'm afraid there's no Canadian stop on the tour -- which is a shame! The exhibit closes at Yale on July 26th; from there it goes to the Brigham Young University Museum of Art where it will be from August 15th through October 15th. From there, it's back to Surrey to its original digs.

  5. Students don't sit near it because there's a story that if you stare at it for too long you go mad.

  6. I was a student taking exams and then a proctor in the RHC picture gallery. During the examination period the painting was covered with a Union Jack for luck as it was said those sitting near failed. Needless to say, it worked for me.

    1. Dr. Parker, wonderful to hear from you of your first-hand experience with this painting!