WOLF, Joseph (1820-1899). Autumn--Wounded Woodcock. 1850. Oil on canvas. 24 x 20 inches. Signed lower right: "J. Wolf."
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.
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.”
In this gorgeous, intimate composition, Wolf portrays a wounded American Woodcock in an autumnal setting, perfectly capturing the bird’s beautiful coloring and diminutive charm. Sprays of burnt umber, yellow ochre, and olive green foliage encircle the small bird and highlight the camouflaging light brown, black, buff, and grey-brown tones of its plumage so elegantly displayed in its tender, outstretched wing. Perched among fallen leaves at the foot of a tree, the woodcock looks out at the viewer, its large eye telling of its vulnerability. The positioning of the eye—high and toward the back of the head—allows the woodcock to identify potential danger or threats since this small, plump bird generally remains low to the ground, slowly walking along the forest floor and probing the soil with its long, straight bill in search of earthworms. With his exquisite attention to atmospheric detail, Wolf includes an array of golden leaves to suggest a sort of gilded sanctuary for the bird while illuminating its round body from underneath. So finely articulated are the leaves that one can almost hear their crispness under the little bird’s weight. Further underscoring the sense of fragility is a delicate, yet grand spider’s web, its diaphanous filaments rhythmically spiraling from a spider in the upper-right quadrant. As with all of Wolf’s work, the detailed setting is highly representative of the animal’s natural habitat as the American Woodcock can be found in forests, old fields, or wet meadows across eastern North America.
Has been examined under UV light. Areas of inpainting visible under UV along extreme perimeters due to frame rubbing-most significant in upper right corner and lower right corner, other scattered lines along edge. Inpainting visible in leaves in upper left quadrant, just left of center. Touchups visible in figure of woodcock: in center of back, along edge of wing (where it joins the body) and below the beak. Small spots of inpainting scattered along leaves in foreground. Shows well in natural light.
Description provided by Julia Stimac, a specialist in 19th-century art. Julia received her BA from Cornell University and MA from the University of Manchester, and she is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Washington. Please contact Julia at 212-628-7625 to arrange a viewing of this work, or visit Arader Galleries at 1016 Madison Avenue, New York.