The National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia possesses artworks from Salvador Dali and Margaret Olley to Sidney Nolan and Pablo Picasso - yet one of the most popular artworks is by an artist who is largely unknown.
Anguish, (Angoisse in French) is an oil painting by August Friedrich Albrecht Schenck, an artist who specialised in portraying animal subjects and landscapes. Twice voted as one of the NGV's most popular artworks (in 1906 and again in 2011), Anguish was an early acquisition for the gallery. Completed in 1878, it is likely Schenck’s best known work.
Schenck was born in 1828 in Glückstadt, Holstein, now in Germany. Living and working in France for most of his life, Schenck was a pupil of Léon Cogniet, a revered teacher and painter. In 1855, Schenck made his artistic debut at the World Exhibition in Paris and presented Anguish in 1878 at the Paris Salon. Garnering considerable success for his paintings of animals, he and French painter Rosa Bonheur became the most sought-after animal painters with international collections. In 1885 Schenck became a knight of the Legion of Honour. He died on New Year’s Day, in 1901 and was buried in Écouen.
Anguish is currently displayed in the NGV within a room dedicated to 19th century narrative paintings. Secured in its original gilt frame, the sizable oil painting (151.0 x 251.2 cm unframed) is an icon of lamentation and ardent resolve - the wretchedness of the ewe and her protective stance over the deceased body of the lamb is reminiscent of a pietà, a visual motif in Christian art depicting the figure of the Virgin Mary cradling the body of her son Jesus after his crucifixion. The pyramidal structure of the ewe and lamb also mirror the arrangement of Michelangelo's Pieta of 1499 - a unifying structure of purposiveness under the scrutiny of the crows.
Schenck’s sincerity in portraying the noble struggle of animals may evoke an anthropomorphic reading in which the massing of crows is symbolic for the prevalent inhumanity in society. Yet stranded on a slightly raised island of hoof-pressed snow (perhaps suggesting the passage of abandonment by others in the herd), this artwork will almost always impress the plight of the ewe foremost.
With only hints of a horizon permitted between the bleak bodies of dark crows, and a trail of blood emitted from the dead lamb, the narrative centres on a claustrophobic and bloody crescendo. What may be a bleat, or a stuttering exhalation from the ewe is a projection of her futility - the short, unexpansive trail of vaporous breath quickly lost in the low cover of cloud.
Sourced from a cold pastoral landscape, Schenck’s manifestation of suffering is conveyed through the eyes of a subject often regarded as a resource. This can be unexpected, though the anguish of loss is proven to be a universal source of grief, and this is manifested in our pained identification of agony through the perspective of a ewe and her lost lamb.