A master of animal anatomy, John Macallan Swan made a name for himself in the late Victoria era as Britain’s premier painter and sculptor of big cats, especially those of the lion and panther families. Exotic animals were enormously popular with audiences at this time, reflecting British colonisation of Africa and India, and the rise of both zoos and circuses as places of entertainment.
In John Macallan Swan’s African panthers, 1891, a pair of spotted leopards crouch belly-down on a rocky outcrop overlooking the African savannah. Their bodies are alert with tension as they observe a herd of springboks coming into a watering hole at night. This scene of violence about to be unleashed is played out against a darkened landscape rendered with a symphony of blue and grey. Although Swan’s painting shows the light spotted leopard rather than the black panther (which is also a leopard), the work’s title acknowledges that leopards belong to the genus panthera.
John Macallan Swan was born in 1847 in Old Brentford, Greater London. He was the son of Robert Wemyes Swan, a civil engineer, and his wife Elisabeth MacAllan.1Sir Walter Armstrong, ‘John Macallan Swan’, Dictionary of National Biography. Second Supplement. Vol. III, Smith, Elder & Co, London, 1912, p. 455. As a young man he studied at the Worcester School of Art, the Lambeth School of Art under John Charles Lewis Sparkes, who controversially taught his students to be artists rather than artisans trained in drawing, and the Royal Academy Schools, all in London.
Unsatisfied with his Royal Academy training, in 1874 he moved to Paris to study at the École des Beaux-Arts under the academic master Jean-Léon Gérôme. At the École, his already proficient drawing skills were rewarded by his immediate promotion to painting from life. The Scottish art critic Robert Alan Mowbray Stevenson, who studied art in Paris at the same time as Swan, recalled that ‘his life when I knew him as a student was given to unusually severe and solid study, which a dogged disposition of mind and great physical strength enabled him to take cheerfully’.2Robert Alan Mowbray Stevenson, ‘J. M. Swan’, The Art Journal, Jan. 1894, p. 17. Fellow students at the École included Jules Bastien-Lepage and Pascal-Adolphe-Jean Dagnan-Bouveret, who were both to develop into leading artists of the French naturalist movement, and who both influenced Swan’s early development.
Gérôme was well equipped to teach Swan a ‘mastery of form’, but Gérôme recommended that in order to also master modelling his pupil should study sculpture as well. Swan was directed to study under Emmanuel Frémiet, the leading exponent of realism in sculpture and a specialist in animal sculptures, who in 1875 had assumed the post of Animal Drawing Instructor at the Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle, Paris. According to Stevenson
Swan’s natural love for animals easily became an artistic purpose under the counsels [of Frémiet] … Practice from nature under Frémiet’s guidance in the Jardin des Plantes followed on this acquaintance. The master noted, explained, and lauded nature and natural movements. He praised and criticized the pupil’s work; he directed his study, but encouraged him to teach himself … He took to anatomy and dissection with alacrity … to the patient following, pencil in hand, of the animal-model through constant change of light and movement.3ibid. pp. 18, 20.
While studying with Frémiet, Swan explored the work of Frémiet’s predecessor at the Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle, the great animalier sculptor of the previous generation, Antoine-Louis Barye. Stevenson recorded how he ‘spent considerable time working from Barye’s écorchés [anatomical studies with the skin removed showing the underlying musculature] in the collection of the Beaux-Arts’.4ibid. p. 20. An obsessive perfectionist, to the point where Frémiet warned him about the dangers of acquiring too much knowledge, Swan also studied comparative anatomy under the paleontologist Paul Gervais at the Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle and human anatomy under Mathias-Marie Duval, Professor of Anatomy at the École des Beaux-Arts.
On his return to England, Swan continued his study of human anatomy at St Bartholomew’s and St Thomas’s hospitals, London, and of animal behaviour at the Zoological Gardens, London.
African panthers was first exhibited at London’s Royal Academy exhibition of 1891, the third year in a row that Swan had shown images of great African cats at this venue. Despite being surrounded by more than 2000 other works, Swan’s diminutive painting captivated art critics and was singled out for praise in numerous exhibition reviews. The Times (1891) declared it ‘the work of a real colourist as well as of a profound observer’; for The Western Daily Press (1891), it showed ‘a nice understanding of animal form in movement, as well as of wild African scenery’; The Leeds Mercury (1891) felt that ‘the action of the crouching beasts [was] finely painted, and the warm colours of the blue and grey evening [were] mingled with consummate skill’; while the Daily News (1891) praised the painting’s ‘beautiful decorative quality and wonderful appreciation of stealthy feline movement’.5‘Royal Academy. Second notice’, The Times, 11 May 1891, p. 8; ‘Royal Academy of Arts’, The Western Daily Press (Yeovil), 11 May 1891, p. 3; ‘The Royal Academy’, The Leeds Mercury, 4 May 1891, p. 8; ‘The Royal Academy’, Daily News, 2 May 1891, p. 2. Calling African panthers ‘the most striking picture of the second room’, The Observer (1891) reflected:
It would be hard to explain the compelling attraction of this work. How the artist has attained such intimacy with the very life of these beasts is beyond understanding. Mr. Swan, by some relationship which folklore will allow, must be of the panther’s kith and kin, tells us of the inner life of these wild beasts in which he takes delight. It is a strange picture of pulsing life, lived within speckled skins, whereof we become eager to learn at once the secret and the sequel.6‘The Royal Academy. Second notice’, The Observer, 17 May 1891, p. 3.
The accolades continued in The Pall Mall Gazette (1891), which called African panthers ‘one of the best things in the Exhibition’; The Sheffield Daily Telegraph (1891) described the work as ‘the most forcible example of animal painting in the exhibition’; The Sunday Times (1891) stated it was ‘one of the most artistic things in the exhibition, and very lovely in its blue and grey and brown harmony’ and The Scotsman (1891) declared it as ‘one of the gems of the exhibition’.7‘The Royal Academy’, The Pall Mall Gazette, 2 May 1891, p. 3. ‘The Royal Academy’, The Sheffield Daily Telegraph, 2 May 1891, p. 5. ‘The Royal Academy’, The Sunday Times, 3 May 1891, p. 7. ‘The Royal Academy’s Exhibition’, The Scotsman, 2 May 1891, p. 10.
The Morning Post (1891) was grateful for the fact that Swan’s painting was ‘happily reduced below the scale of nature and, more happily still, endowed with only mimic existence’, for its stealthily crouching leopards were
alarmingly life-like in form and expression … Through their spotted hides, painted with wonderful accuracy of tone and texture [that] are skilfully suggested in the structure and even the dormant energy of their strenuous and lissom anatomy.88 ‘The Royal Academy. Third notice’, The Morning Post, 11 May 1891, p. 4.
Swan’s great gift as an animalier artist lay in his ability to fuse his intimate knowledge of feline anatomy and observation of the movements and behaviour of the great cats in zoos, into a highly believable narrative of their natural behaviour in the wild. Art writer Cosmo Monkhouse noted:
For the not very large picture of the ‘African Panthers’ of 1891 the studies were numerous, some of them doubtless not only for this particular picture. Among them are studies of construction, to be utilised also for statuettes, studies of gesture and movement from different points of view which will possibly serve as suggestions for other compositions; but besides these there are some of special beauty for the maculation of the animals when crouching and seen from behind, as in the picture.9Cosmo Monkhouse, ‘John Macallan Swan, A. R. A.’, The Magazine of Art, 1894, p. 174.
Another critic, Alfred Lys Baldry, wrote tellingly at the time of the contrast between Swan’s work and that of the great animalier painter of the preceding generation, Edwin Landseer. For Baldry, Landseer’s
capacity for suggesting the mental capacity of the beasts he painted was by no means perfect. In his pictures it is useless to seek for natural and unconventional animal life, or even for a hint of true animal emotion. Instead he has given us a series of purely human dramas in which the actors masquerade in borrowed disguises, and incongruously show human convictions through a furry makeup. The whole principle of his art was a mistaken idea to establish a kind of parallelism between the feelings of man and animals, and to prove a similarity which has no actual existence.10Alfred Lys Baldry, ‘Drawings by Mr. J. M. Swan, A. R. A.’, The Studio, vol. 11, no. 54, Sep. 1897, p. 237.
Swan, by contrast, was
an exponent of what is correct and appropriate in the representation of animal types and characteristics … What he wants to study, in fact, is the natural beast, the savage, untamed creature upon which man has imposed none of his own mannerisms.11Baldry, 1897, p. 238.
African panthers was one of a group of works acquired for the NGV by the British artist Hubert Herkomer, who for a short period from 1891 to 1892 agreed to act as London buyer for the Melbourne Collection. As Herkomer himself informed the Gallery’s Trustees:
When the serious task of collecting art works for the National Gallery of Melbourne was entrusted to my care, I felt at once the necessity of selecting works of representative types of art rather than works that were likely to afford amusement from the character of the subjects depicted. The collection, to my mind, should be educational from an art point of view; strictly avoiding, however, subjects that from their peculiar nature were likely to be misconstrued, despite their artistic treatment, by half educated – or less than half educated – people … I have so far trusted to modern masters, because I do not wish to spend public funds on works of doubtful authenticity, and I know no more risky venture than collecting old masters.12Hubert Herkomer, letter to the Trustees of the National Gallery of Victoria, reprinted in ‘Selection of pictures for the National Gallery: important statement by Professor Herkomer’, The Argus, 23 Jul. 1892, p. 5, and in ‘Fine arts. Purchase of pictures for the National Gallery’, The Leader (Melbourne), 30 Jul. 1892, p. 39.
After boasting of how he had refused to buy African panthers from the walls of the Royal Academy in the summer of 1891 because of its high price, and subsequently securing a discount on the work, Herkomer declared the painting to be ‘a gem of colour and subtle workmanship … [Swan] is a fastidious worker and produces little, but he is one of our strongest artists, and I would say our most original animal painter’.13ibid.
Ted Gott, Senior Curator, International Art, National Gallery of Victoria
Sir Walter Armstrong, ‘John Macallan Swan’, Dictionary of National Biography. Second Supplement. Vol. III, Smith, Elder & Co, London, 1912, p. 455.
Robert Alan Mowbray Stevenson, ‘J. M. Swan’, The Art Journal, Jan. 1894, p. 17.
ibid. pp. 18, 20.
ibid. p. 20.
‘Royal Academy. Second notice’, The Times, 11 May 1891, p. 8; ‘Royal Academy of Arts’, The Western Daily Press (Yeovil), 11 May 1891, p. 3; ‘The Royal Academy’, The Leeds Mercury, 4 May 1891, p. 8; ‘The Royal Academy’, Daily News, 2 May 1891, p. 2.
‘The Royal Academy. Second notice’, The Observer, 17 May 1891, p. 3.
‘The Royal Academy’, The Pall Mall Gazette, 2 May 1891, p. 3. ‘The Royal Academy’, The Sheffield Daily Telegraph, 2 May 1891, p. 5. ‘The Royal Academy’, The Sunday Times, 3 May 1891, p. 7. ‘The Royal Academy’s Exhibition’, The Scotsman, 2 May 1891, p. 10.
‘The Royal Academy. Third notice’, The Morning Post, 11 May 1891, p. 4.
Cosmo Monkhouse, ‘John Macallan Swan, A. R. A.’, The Magazine of Art, 1894, p. 174.
Alfred Lys Baldry, ‘Drawings by Mr. J. M. Swan, A. R. A.’, The Studio, vol. 11, no. 54, Sep. 1897, p. 237.
Baldry, 1897, p. 238.
Hubert Herkomer, letter to the Trustees of the National Gallery of Victoria, reprinted in ‘Selection of pictures for the National Gallery: important statement by Professor Herkomer’, The Argus, 23 Jul. 1892, p. 5, and in ‘Fine arts. Purchase of pictures for the National Gallery’, The Leader (Melbourne), 30 Jul. 1892, p. 39.