There are 75,000 works within the National Gallery of Victoria’s collection. There are works from Salvador Dali, Pablo Picasso, John Brack, Margaret Olley, Tom Roberts, Grace Cossington Smith, Camille Pissaro, Giambattista Tiepolo, Sidney Nolan...the list goes on.
And yet one of the most popular works is a 140-year-old kitschy oil painting by an artist whom history has largely forgotten. This isn’t the story of the best artworks at the NGV, nor is it the story of the gallery’s works that everyone should know. No, this is the story of arguably the saddest painting at the NGV: the story of August Friedrich Albrecht Schenck’s ‘Anguish’ – aka the ‘sad sheep painting’.
You might not recognise ‘Anguish’ ('Angoisse' in French) by name, but any Melburnian worth their flat white has almost certainly seen the massive artwork. Standing at 1.5 metres tall and more than 2.5 metres wide, ‘Anguish’ depicts a ewe standing protectively over her deceased lamb in the snow, while a murder of crows swarms portentously around her. Her face bleats plaintively for her lost lamb, her breath ghostly with cold.
Despite the grim scene it depicts, Dr Ted Gott, NGV senior curator for international art, tells us that ‘Anguish’ has twice been voted one of the NGV’s most popular works – first in 1906 and then again a century later in 2011. The painting's fame far outstrips that of its creator.
In fact, very little is known about the artist Schenck at all, says Gott. August Friedrich Albrecht Schenck was a Danish artist born in 1828 – though he’s often wrongly said to be German due to changing international boundaries in the 19th century. Schenck moved to France, studied at the renowned École des Beaux-Arts school and was exhibiting in the Paris Salon by 1857. His skill was even enough to be made a chevalier of the legion. “But despite that we know very little about him,” says Gott. “If you go to Wikipedia you’ll see there are about three lines on him.”
The art world is famously fickle, and by the 1930s Schenck’s works were considered “schmaltzy”. “Meaning it's cheesy, embarrassingly emotional, tug at the heartstrings... and possibly that’s why we don't have that much work done on Schenck,” says Gott. “Because people just shied away from him as having fallen out of taste.”
In its time, however, ‘Anguish’ (and paintings like it) were incredibly popular. Schenck specialised in showing paintings of animals in distress – especially sheep – and was very successful in that endeavour. Death and suffering were very fashionable during the late 19th century, partly because Queen Victoria had entered an unrelenting period of mourning for her husband, Prince Albert, and partly because death was literally everywhere. “People loved these allegories of animals taking on human emotions,” says Gott. “A mother visiting the [Paris] salon can imagine if her own child was ill or if she had lost a child. That was very common in the 1860s, '70s and '80s because there wasn’t proper sanitation.”
Gott also suggests an additional reason for Schenck’s emotional animal paintings finding purchase: the father of evolution itself, Charles Darwin. Darwin published his highly significant On the Origin of Species in 1859, followed by The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals in 1872. “That’s the first study really that makes people realise that animals do suffer pain, loss and joy,” says Gott. “That was a real turning in point in scientific understanding, that the animal world is not just there for our consumption and pleasure.”
With Schenck’s career running parallel to Darwin’s studies, it’s not hard to see how he could have been inspired by the scientist’s revolutionary theories.
While it’s clear to see why ‘Anguish’ succeeded in its time, it doesn’t quite explain why it has remained so popular. There is certainly a “visceral emotion” to it as Gott says, and a cinematic element created by the dramatic scale of the painting. Whatever the reason, the NGV has no plans to remove the painting anytime soon, with 'Anguish' continuing to draw eyes. "No matter [what] your response is, it is a work that makes people stop in their tracks."