Sunday, March 14, 2010

Briton Riviere - The Most Devoted of Her Slaves

signed with monogram and dated l.r.: 1894

oil on canvas
32 by20in.

London, Royal Academy of Arts, 1894, no. 608

Following in the footsteps of Sir Edwin Landseer, Briton Riviere successfully combined narrative drama with a close study of animals, painting pictures of wonderful pathos and exquisite beauty. His greatest pictures can be divided into two distinct groups; those of classical and Biblical drama such as Daniel in the Lion's Den (Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool) and Persepolis (location unknown) and those like the present work of faithful animals, particularly dogs. The most famous of his dog paintings is arguably Sympathy (Royal Holloway College) in which a little girl, seated at the top of a flight of stairs having been banished, is comforted by a small dog.

The present work continues in a similar vein but is much less sentimental. The woman is presented in work clothes carrying a bucket and stick with a small flower being the only feminine accoutrement. The sense of hardship etched on her face is enhanced by the humble surroundings and she stares, lost in thought. Her introverted melancholic reverie is in stark contrast to the dog who waits with subservient loyalty, expectantly hoping for acknowledgement. It is the subtle treatment of this often overly sentimental subject matter which lends credibility to Riviere's work. As Walter Armstrong observes in the Art Annual of 1891, 'His sympathy with dogs is too thorough to permit of their degradation into half-taught actors. He paints them for what they are, a symbol of what man was once, the rough material of civilisation with virtues and vices yet unblunted by convention...His interest, in fact, is in the animal's real self.'


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