However, one of his best known works is the sculpture of two lions at the foot of Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square. Born to a father who was an engraver, Landseer was a prodigious talent even at an early age, and he later studied with his father and a range of other artists including Haydon who supported the young artist with animal dissections so that he could better understand skeletal and muscle structures.
The Ptarmigan in a Landscape is a painting made in oil in around 1833, and shows two ptarmigans that have just been shot by a hunter. In the evocative scene, the male is shown in his death throes, while his mate continues to guard the nest, and the painting is now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Landseer was a popular figure in Victorian Britain, and although he undertook some portrait work, it was his reputation as an animal painter that led to his enduring fame, although much of his income was derived from creating engravings of his work. However, Landseer sometimes had an erratic painting technique which meant that on some occasions he would paint very quickly and was rumoured to be able to paint with both hands simultaneously. At other times it would take years for him to finish a commission, possibly as a result of the depression and melancholia that dogged him in later years.
Landseer had a particular affinity with Scotland which he initially visited in 1824, and after this time Scottish subjects featured in many of his paintings, and particularly the Highlands of Scotland, including one of his most famous paintings, The Monarch of the Glen featuring a majestic stag. The Ptarmigan in a Landscape is also based on one of the favourite birds of sport at that time in Scotland. The underlying message of the painting is that the ptarmigan is a bird that mates for life, and the shooting represents the tragic impact of violence on love and familial commitment. Landseer’s paintings remain a treasured part of British history, showing beautiful representations of nature and metaphors for human life. However, although the painter enjoyed great success in his heyday, his later life was marked by the tragedy of recurrent bouts of hypochondria and mental illness often exacerbated by drug and alcohol use.