Alexander And Diogenes – Sir Edwin Landseer

Questions to arouse interest. Where are these dogs? Which one seems at home? In what is he lying? What makes you think the sun is shining brightly? Which dog looks the best cared for? How does he seem to feel toward the first dog? To which class do the other dogs in the picture belong? What seems to be their attitude toward the two principal dogs? Which dog looks the proudest? the most content? the vainest? What different kinds of dogs are represented in this picture? How many know the story about Alexander and Diogenes? Why was this picture so named?

Original Picture : National Gallery, London, England.

Artist: Sir Edwin Landseer (lând’ser).

Birthplace : London, England.

Dates: Born, 1802; died, 1873.

The story of the picture. Into the streets of Athens, bright with the life and brilliant colors of its gayly dressed people, came the uncouth figure of the philosopher Diogenes, ridiculing all that the Athenian held most dear. On his head he carried the tub in which he ate and slept. At first he also carried a cup, but after seeing a boy drink from the hollow of his hand, he broke his cup on the pavement, preferring the ” simpler way.” His ugly, cynical face, awkward figure, bare feet, and ragged clothing made him an object of astonishment and ridicule. Independent, surly, and ill-natured, he continued to be an outcast throughout his long life. He taught in the streets as did many of the philosophers in those days, and spoke so plainly and so contemptuously of the life of the people that but for his ready wit he must have been driven out of the city. He himself cared nothing for abuse and insult, and went so far in showing his contempt for pride in others that he acquired the same fault himself, and grew proud of his contempt for pride. He loved to show the contempt he felt for all the little courtesies of polite society.

The story is told that Diogenes came, uninvited and unannounced, to a dinner which Plato, a great philosopher, was giving to a select number of his friends, and, rubbing his dirty feet on the rich carpets, called out, “Thus I trample on the pride of Plato.” To which that philosopher quickly retorted, “But with greater pride, O Diogenes.”

One day he went about the streets carrying a lantern, though the sun was shining brightly. He seemed to be looking earnestly for something, and when asked what he was searching for he replied, “I am searching for an honest man.”

Plato gave lectures to his pupils in the Academic Gardens, and one day Diogenes was present. Plato defined man as “a two-legged animal without feathers.” Diogenes immediately seized a chicken and, having plucked its feathers, he threw it among Plato’s pupils, declaring it to be “one of Plato’s men.”

Once he was captured by pirates and sold as a slave, but even this did not subdue him, for on being asked what he could do he declared he could “govern men,” and urged the crier to ask, “Who wants to buy a master?” The man who bought him set him free, and afterwards employed him to teach his children. That is how Diogenes happened to be in Corinth when Alexander the Great was passing that way. To that great Macedonian king, who considered himself the “son of a god” and to whom all had knelt in homage almost worship, the visit to Diogenes was something of a shock. He found him in one of the poorer streets, seated in his tub, enjoying the sun and utterly indifferent as to who his visitor might be. Astonished, the king said, “I am Alexander.”

The answer came as proudly, “And I am Diogenes.”

Alexander then said, “Have you no favor to ask of me?”

“Yes,” Diogenes replied, “to get out of my sunlight.”

Far from being angry with him, Alexander seemed to respect and admire a man strong enough to be indifferent to his presence, and said, “Were I not Alexander, I would be Diogenes.”

It happened one day that the artist, Sir Edwin Landseer, passing along one of the narrower streets of London, caught a glimpse of a dirty tramp dog resting comfortably in an empty barrel and looking up with an impish gaze at a well-cared-for dog. The well-kept dog was surveying the tramp with looks of mingled haughtiness and annoyance because of his lack of respect. Immediately the thought came to the artist that here were another Alexander and Diogenes.

The well-fed and carefully cared-for pet, with his fine collar and snow-white coat, sniffs with disgust at the dirt and poverty of the tramp dog, yet is held in spite of himself by the look of indifference and disrespect on the other’s face. He, the envied dog of the neighborhood, upon whom all honors have been showered, has found here for the first time a dog who dares to disregard him. And what a dog! He is amazed, yet held, waiting to see what the tramp dog will do.

Those smaller dogs do not share the indifference of Diogenes at the presence of this great personage. They seem ready to run at the first sign of danger, yet they remain near enough to see and hear all that might happen.

The two hounds in the background, waiting so solemnly for the master, hold their heads high in the air as if the neighborhood were not good enough for them, and they of course could have no interest in what is going on.

Probably Sir Edwin Landseer meant this picture to call attention to the vanities of human nature, and to make us smile at them. The expressions on the faces of these dogs are almost human, so well do they tell their story.

The hammer and nails lying on the rough pavement near the barrel would indicate that this is not a permanent home for the tramp dog, but rather a temporary place of shelter into which he has strayed.

Notice how Landseer has centered our attention on the more important dog, by color, size, and position in the picture. The other spots of light, even that on the edge of the barrel, draw our eyes back to the proud Alexander. We might not discover Diogenes so soon if we did not follow the gaze of Alexander.

Landseer delighted in telling stories in his pictures of animals. Rosa Bonheur and other animal painters aimed to make the animals appear natural and lifelike, but Landseer wished most of all to show their relation to human beings.

This picture hangs in the National Gallery, London, England.

Questions to help the pupil understand the picture. Who was Alexander the Great? Who was Diogenes? Tell about the life and philosophy of Diogenes. Describe his personal appearance; Plato’s dinner and his reply to Diogenes. Why did Diogenes carry a lantern in the daytime? What happened after he was captured by the pirates? How did he happen to be in Corinth when Alexander the Great was there? What opinion did Alexander have of himself? Where did he find Diogenes? What conversation did they have? Why was this picture called “Alexander and Diogenes”? Why is the name appropriate? To which class do the other dogs in the picture belong? What are they doing? Where is the scene of this picture laid? Why is this appropriate? What is there unusual about this picture? What impression do you think the artist wished to leave with us? What devices has he used to center our attention upon the more important dog? upon Diogenes? Where is the original painting?

The story of the artist. Sir Edwin Landseer’s grandfather was a jeweler, and his father also learned the jeweler’s trade. The jewelers of that day were often asked to engrave the copper plates that were used in printing pictures. Sir Edwin’s father soon decided he would rather engrave pictures than sell jewels, and he became a very skillful engraver.

At that time few people realized what an art it was to be able to cut a picture in copper so that a great many copies of it could be made from one plate. They did not even consider it an art as we do, and so engravers were not allowed to exhibit at the Royal Academy and were given no honors at all. Edwin’s father thought this was not right, and gave several lectures in defense of the art. Engraving, he said, was a kind of “sculpture performed by incision.” His talks seemed to be of no avail at the time, but in the year following his death, engravers at last received the recognition due them.

His eldest son, Thomas, also became famous as an engraver, and it is to him we are indebted for so many good prints of Sir Edwin Landseer’s paintings. This son is the one who made the engraving of the “Horse Fair” for Rosa Bonheur. Few people can afford to own great paintings, but the prints come within the means of almost all of us.

Edwin’s father taught him to draw, and he learned so quickly that even when he was only five years old he could draw remarkably well. Edwin had three sisters and two brothers. The family lived in the country, and often the father went with his boys for a walk through the fields. There were two very large fields separated from each other by a fence with an old-fashioned stile. This stile had about four steps and was built high, so that the sheep and cows pastured in the fields could not jump over. One day Edwin stopped here to admire these animals and asked his father to show him how to draw them. His father took a piece of paper and a pencil from his pocket, and showed Edwin how to draw a cow. This was the boy’s first drawing lesson. After this Edwin came here nearly every day, and his father called these two fields “Edwin’s studio.”

When he was only thirteen years old two of his pictures were exhibited at the Royal Academy. One was a painting of a mule, the other of a dog and puppy. Edwin painted from real life always, not caring to make copies from the work of others. All the sketches he made when he was a little boy were carefully kept by his father, and now, if you go to England, you may see them in the South Kensington Museum, in London.

Landseer was only sixteen years old when he exhibited his wonderful picture called “Fighting Dogs Getting Wind.” A very rich man, whose praise meant a great deal at that time, bought the picture, and Edwin’s success was assured. So many people brought their pets for him to paint that he had to keep a list and each was obliged to wait his turn.

It was about this time, too, that he painted an old white horse in the stable of another wealthy man. After the picture was finished and ready to deliver, it suddenly disappeared. It was sought everywhere, but it was not found until twenty-four years afterwards. A servant had stolen it and hidden it away in a hayloft. He was afraid to sell it, or even to keep it in his home, for every one would recognize the great artist’s work.

For a number of years Landseer lived and painted in his father’s house in a poor little room without even a carpet. All the furniture, we are told, consisted of three cheap chairs and an easel. Later he had a fine “studio not far from Regent’s Park. There were a small house and garden, and the barn was made over into a studio.

Sir Edwin was not a very good business man, so he left all his financial affairs to his father, who sold his pictures for him and kept his accounts.

At twenty-four Landseer became a member of the Royal Academy, which was an unusual honor for so young a man.

This story is told of him. At a social ,gathering in the home of a well-known leader of society in London, where Landseer was present, the company had been talking about skill with the hands, when some one remarked that no one had ever been found who could draw two things at once. Landseer replied„ ” Oh, I can do that; lend me two pencils and I will show you.” Then with one hand he quickly drew the head of a horse, at the same time drawing with the other hand a deer’s head and antlers. Both sketches were so good that they might well have been drawn with the same hand and with much more care.

Landseer made a special study of lions, too. A lion died at the park menagerie, and Landseer dissected its body and studied and drew every part. He painted many pictures of lions. He modeled the lions at the base of the Nelson Monument in Trafalgar Square, London, unveiled in 1867.

When Sir Edwin Landseer went to visit Scot-land one of his fellow travelers was Sir Walter Scott, the great novelist. The two became warm friends. Sir Walter Scott tells us : ” Landseer’s dogs were the most magnificent things I ever saw, leaping and bounding and grinning all over the canvas.” Landseer painted Sir Walter Scott’s handsome dog, ” Maida Vale,” many times, and named his studio for the dog.

Although Landseer painted so many wild animals, birds, and hunting scenes, he did not care to shoot animals or to hunt. His sketch-book was his only weapon. Sometimes he would hire guides to take him into the wildest parts of the country in search of game. But they felt quite disgusted with him when, a great deer bounding toward them, he would merely make a sketch of it in his book. He knew how to use a gun, though, and sometimes did so with great success.

But it was the study of live animals that interested him most. Sir Edwin Landseer felt that animals understand, feel, and reason just like people, so he painted them as happy, sad, gay, dignified, frivolous, rich, poor, and in all ways, just like human beings.

Landseer did and said all he could against the custom of cutting, or “cropping,” the ears of dogs. He held that nature intended to protect the ears of dogs that “dig in the dirt,” and man should not interfere. People paid attention to what he said, and the custom lost favor.

In 185o the honor of knighthood was conferred upon the artist.

Landseer was popular alike with lovers of art and simple lovers of nature who had no knowledge of painting. No English painter has ever been more appreciated in his own country.

He died in London in 1873, at the age of seventy-one.

Other noted pictures by Landseer are : “The Highland Shepherd’s Chief Mourner,” “Suspense,” “The Connoisseurs,” “A Distinguished Member of the Royal Humane Society,” “Saved,” “My Dog,” “Dignity and Impudence,” “Sleeping Bloodhound,” “Shoeing the Bay Mare,” “Monarch of the Glen,” and “A Deer Family.”

Questions about the artist. What did Sir Edwin Landseer’s father do for a living? Tell about Edwin’s boyhood and first “studio.” For what did he name the studio “Maida Vale”? With whom did he travel through Scotland? What was Sir Edwin Landseer’s idea of hunting, and why? How did he feel about animals? What skill did he have with his left hand? Name some of his paintings.