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Ptarmigan in a Landscape

Sir Edwin Landseer, English, 1802 - 1873

Made in England, Europe

By 1833

Oil on panel

19 1/2 × 25 3/4 inches (49.5 × 65.4 cm)

Curatorial Department:
European Painting

* Gallery 294, European Art 1500-1850, second floor

Accession Number:

Credit Line:
The Henry P. McIlhenny Collection in memory of Frances P. McIlhenny, 1986

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Two ptarmigans, the favorite birds of sport in Scotland, have been shot by a hunter. While the male dies, his wounded mate continues to guard the nest. Landseer often used animals to comment on the human condition. Here, birds that mate for life are made to represent the tragic impact of violence on love and the strength of familial commitment.

Additional information:
  • PublicationPhiladelphia Museum of Art: Handbook of the Collections

    Sir Edwin Landseer drew few distinctions between traditional narrative painting and the depiction of animals. The characters in his pictures are rarely human, yet they play out the drama with the same weight and conviction. Here the protagonists are ptarmigans, the favorite bird of sport in Scotland, which famously mate for life. The male bird has been fatally wounded, his neck turned in mute appeal. The female apparently has also been hit, yet still guards the nest. Four luckier birds escape the slaughter and fly down a huge, empty valley. Such a scene has nobility and tragedy enough for any pair of ill-fated classical lovers. Landseer's great genius is his ability to charm us into abandoning our fear of sentimentality and to engage us in these "pathetic fallacies," which for so much of this century were dismissed as Victorian triviality. Perhaps we need the horrible distance from nature of the post-industrial age to understand again the truth of Landseer's observations and sentiments. Joseph J. Rishel, from Philadelphia Museum of Art: Handbook of the Collections (1995), p. 188.

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