As a young man, the Danish born artist August Friedrich Albrecht Schenck settled in Paris, where he studied at the École des Beaux-Arts. Schenck spent most of his career in France, specializing in painting landscapes and animal subjects. For over thirty years he was a regular contributor to the Paris Salons, where Anguish was exhibited in 1878.
In this painting, Schenck has given his distraught ewe an expression suggestive of despair mingled with stoic determination. Recognising these decidedly human responses, the viewer might be expected to identify immediately with the animal’s grim predicament. The ewe’s bravery in the face of the threat posed by the murderous circle of crows is perhaps, however, somewhat overstated in her defiant stance above the bleeding lamb. There is little subtlety evident in this work.
Although Anguish has a sentimental quality, Schenck did not intend this to be overt. Indeed, his sincerity in portraying the nobility in animals was not lost on his contemporaries, with a critic for Le Figaro describing the artist in 1878 as ‘One of our finest animal painters. He is one of those originals of the species not yet extinct who prefer dogs to men and find more sweetness in sheep than women’. This is by no means a derogatory statement, but is, rather, a testament to Schenck’s abilities as a painter.
Interestingly, if we accept that there is an anthropomorphic quality in Anguish, then the surreal massing of the crows may well be Schenck’s method of alluding to the inhumanity prevalent in society. He may here be examining the broader human condition, in the context of an animal painting.
Anguish was one of the earliest acquisitions by the National Gallery of Victoria and the high ideals expressed in the painting were not lost on early visitors to the Gallery. In 1906, this picture was voted among the five most popular in the Melbourne collection and again in 2011, during the National Gallery of Victoria’s 150th Anniversary, Anguish appeared in the public’s top 10 most popular works.
Text by Laurie Benson from 19th century painting and sculpture in the international collections of the National Gallery of Victoria, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2003, p. 60.