WOLF, Joseph (1820-1899). Saker Falcons. Oil on canvas. 1864.
Wolf, Joseph (1820-1899). Saker Falcons. Oil on canvas. 1864. 28 1/4 x 20 inches, framed: 35 1/2 x 27 1/2 inches. Oil on canvas. Signed lower right: "J. Wolf 1864."
Sir Edwin Landseer described Joseph Wolf as "...without exception the best all-round animal painter who ever lived," and this remarkable oil painting is ample evidence to support such a claim. Resisting categorization as a scientific illustrator, Wolf aimed to create complete, naturalistic compositions that conveyed a sense of drama and mystery while maintaining an exceptional eye for detail. "The great thing I always aimed at," the artist told his biographer A. H. Palmer, "was the expression of Life." He firmly believed that intimate knowledge of the living subject, its habits, and its behavior was the key to authentic and successful zoological illustration. As such, his compositions reconciled the categories of art and science in an extraordinary, distinctive manner, becoming dynamic images of animated characterization as well as scientific documentation.
Wolf, who grew up in Moerz in Prussia, was the first of a select band of continental European bird and animal artists to be attracted to England during the middle and latter half of the 19th century. At the age of sixteen, he left home and apprenticed himself to the lithographic firm of Gebruder Becker in Koblenz, where he first met his future patron Hermann Schlegel, a prolific author of ornithological works who was, at that time, the assistant keeper at the museum in Leyden. After brief spells in Frankfurt and Darmstadt, Wolf went to Holland and settled in Leyden in 1840; he was soon at work on the illustrations for Traité de Fauconnerie by Hermann Schlegel and A. H. Verster van Wulverhorst. Working on this book on falconry, Wolf became an expert at portraying birds of prey, a flawless skill of representation that is in full evidence in Saker Falcons.
The national bird of Mongolia and Hungary, the saker falcon is a large, intimidating bird from central and eastern Asia; Wolf’s marvelous composition brilliantly captures the imposing grandeur of this magnificent animal while evoking an element of vulnerability that seems to foreshadow its current endangered status. Two falcons—carefully posed to present views of their rich brown primary feathers and barred, white underside—are perched on a tortuous tree trunk pressed to the front of the composition; behind them a deep, tranquil meadow fills the picture plane to suggest the great open grasslands in which these birds tend to roam. Separated from the meadow by an emergent body of water, the tree acts as a repoussoir, signifying depth to the viewer, yet also thrusting the large bird into our space. This interesting compositional choice, punctuated by the falcon’s piercing eye which meets and holds our gaze, is shrewdly made, for it conjures the ineffable mixture of fear and intimacy evoked through such a sublime encounter.
Across its vast territory, the saker falcon flies and hunts laterally, often preying on mid-sized diurnal rodents; the reptile trapped under the raptor’s talons in Wolf’s painting is thus somewhat unusual, but in fact this too serves marvelously to charge the composition. Highlighting the vast array of greens woven throughout the work, the long reptile unifies the scene and mediates a subtle but striking harmony, befitting the intimidating yet calm presence of the two falcons depicted. The emerald green of the reptile’s scales is also complementary to the rich, true browns that characterize the saker falcon’s mottled plumage, and this relationship ignites a vibrancy in each of the colors; indeed, with its rigorously rendered surface creating physical texture, the rich coloring of the falcon’s broad wings and tail seems to shimmer and sparkle, as though ruffling in the wind gusting across the plane. With the inclusion of the mossy tree and mounding vegetation, the browns and greens continue to intermingle on a vertical axis that stabilizes the composition while adding to the sense of drama and immediacy captured in the scene.
After developing contact with John Gould, Wolf established himself in London, where he exhibited at the Royal Academy, met Edwin Landseer and other animal artists, and won the patronage of discerning collectors like the Duke of Argyll and Lord Derby. Wolf had a long and productive relationship with Gould, contributing plates to The Birds of Asia and The Birds of Great Britain, and Gould became a frequent visitor to Wolf's studio. The rapidity of the growth of his reputation was due, according to his biographer A.H. Palmer, to his power "of revivifying a dried skin and not merely revivifying, but showing the most characteristic and beautiful attitude and expression of the living bird or animal." Indeed, Wolf’s luminous oil—a mastery of light and form—is a powerful representation of the majestic saker falcon as it haunts the bright, open wilderness in all of its glory.
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