Edwin Landseer Monarch of the Glen is one of the most instantly recognizable pieces of Scottish art.
Landseer's famous painting is an icon of Scotland and the Scottish landscape.
Painted in 1851, the Monarch of the Glen painting depicts a red deer stag. Sir Edwin Landseer's painting is part of a series of works initially destined for the Palace of Westminster in London.
Because of its unprecedented popularity, however, the painting became increasingly controversial. Seen as a cliché and promoting “biscuit tin” stereotypes of Scottish wilderness, debates rage regarding its appropriate place in the popular imagination.
Commentators allude to the painting as a “swirling storm of Victorian melodrama” and “cultural colonialism.” Nevertheless, Sir Edwin Landseer's artwork is one of the most skilled animal paintings ever created, providing a potent symbol of contested national identity.
The stag itself has antlers with twelve points. Referred to as a “royal stag,” it’s a fitting subject for the Palace of Westminster. The setting shows Glen Affric (a stunning area of outstanding national beauty) fifteen kilometers west of Loch Ness.
In the painting, the stag emerges from the heather-clad hills, clothed in highland mist and mystery. The composition of this oil painting is powerful and cleverly structured, luring the viewer ever closer to the powerful and proud animal.
Since its creation, Monarch of the Glen has become one of British art's most discussed and reproduced visual icons.
Sir Edwin Landseer (an Englishman) was a favorite painter of Queen Victoria. As a member of the prestigious Royal Academy of London, Landseer created many astounding depictions of animals.
Other famous Landseer animal artworks include the lions at the base of Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square, horses in The Arab Tent, and the mystical scenery of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. From the 1840s onwards, however, Landseer created a series of paintings depicting stags.
Landseer's stag paintings are observed in incredible detail, emerging from his regular sporting trips to the Scottish Highlands. They include stunning works such as The Highland Nurses and Highland Deer.
Problematically, however, stag hunting by the English upper classes played a fundamental role in the Highland Clearances. The painting symbolizes rich Englishmen’s sports pursuits prioritized over Scottish lives, adding an extra layer of meaning to the artwork. Sir Edwin Landseer's famous painting is no mere superficial image but one with a rich and complex politically-charged history.
Despite its current popularity (and technical brilliance), the painting was not initially well-received. Commissioned for the Refreshment Rooms of the House of Lords (in the Palace of Westminster), the House of Commons refused to pay for the artworks.
While the refusal to pay relates to funding rather than a comment on Edwin Landseer's paintings, the artist never received the promised £150 payment. Consequently, the paintings (including Monarch of the Glen) went to private collectors.
The painting currently hangs in the National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh. They launched a well-publicized campaign in 2017 to purchase the artwork, raising £4 million for sale.
Despite its current (rightful) place in the National Gallery, the painting has fascinating sale history. The painting slowly increased in fame and was exhibited in 1851, 1874, and 1890. William Denison (1st Earl of Londesborough) owned the painting, which later passed to Henry Eaton (1st Baron Cheylesmore) in 1884.
On Henry Eaton’s death, it sold for £7,245 at Christie’s Auction House, London, in 1892. After this, the painting passed hands multiple times before returning to Christie’s in 1916. Purchased by Pears Soap Company (for £5,250), it featured in much of their advertising.
Pears later sold the painting to John Dewar and Sons distillery, where the stag became their whisky trademark. This Glenfiddich whisky company still uses the stag logo today.
In 1997, the British multinational beverage company Diageo purchased Dewar’s distillery. They loaned the artwork to the National Gallery of Scotland until 2016 when Diageo announced their intention to sell.
Although valued at £8 million, Diageo promised to sell the Monarch of the Glen to the National Gallery of Scotland. For the deal, they just had to raise half the purchase price. A successful funding campaign secured the painting’s place for the nation.
Monarch of the Glen remains a famous animal painting and an ongoing but conflicting source of Scottish identity.
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