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Why does August Friedrich Albrecht Schenck’s famous artwork, Anguish, transfix NGV visitors so much?

In an attempt to better understand its appeal, I turned to Dr Ted Gott, senior curator of international art at the NGV. I wanted to understand why, in a gallery crowded with masterworks, this one in particular inspires such a visceral response. Why, from an art professional’s point of view, is this sheep so sad? “It’s one of those car crash paintings that you can’t stop looking at,” says Gott. “You want to take yourself away, but you can’t. A painting that once seen is never forgotten.”

Schenck had a talent for painting animals in distress, with a tendency to pastoral scenes serving as metaphor for humanity, religion, ineffable angst.

NGV curator Dr Ted Gott (with Cezanne’s <i>Fruit and a jug on a table</i>) says Schenck’s painting is one you can’t stop looking at.

NGV curator Dr Ted Gott (with Cezanne’s Fruit and a jug on a table) says Schenck’s painting is one you can’t stop looking at.Credit: Simon Schluter

His career coincided with a cultural shift in human-animal relations. Charles Darwin had recently published The Expression of Emotions in Animals and Man, which argued the then-revolutionary idea that animals had an equal right to life and their own emotional worlds, capable of feeling joy, fear and sorrow. “That was a landmark work that pointed out that animals in the world are not solely put there for our use, abuse, and pleasure,” explains Gott.

Similarly, artworks exploring grief and melancholy were highly fashionable in the late 19th century, as romanticism evolved into a golden age of emo.

“Victorian society loved to celebrate death,” says Gott. With high infant mortality, disease, and poor sanitation in cities, death was omnipresent. The British Empire took its cues from Queen Victoria, who had been in mourning since Prince Albert’s death in 1861.

In this market, Schenck was tremendously popular. His career peaked right at the apex of these twin cultural waves, specialising in sad animals, and especially sad sheep. He felt the animal was a great symbol for human emotion and produced several paintings of sheep in various states of distress. Melbourne’s Sad Sheep is not the only sad sheep. It’s not even the saddest.

August Schenck’s <i>The Orphan</i>.

August Schenck’s The Orphan.Credit: Musee d’Orsay, RMN-Grand Palais / DR

There is a twin to Anguish called The Orphan, which hangs in the Musee d’Orsay. Produced years after the success of Anguish, it is an inverse of Melbourne’s Sad Sheep, depicting a lamb cowering next to the body of its dead mother as crows close in. It’s even more depressing, as layers of dirty varnish tint the painting muted yellow and brown. “If that was cleaned off, it would be as sparkling as ours,” says Gott. “And wouldn’t it be marvellous for the two to be united one day? Money is against that, the cost of shipping.”

The gallery paid a small fortune for Anguish – £1400, or somewhere to the tune of $400,000 today – after it debuted at the 1878 Paris Salon. By the time the gallery unveiled the painting in Melbourne in 1880, it was already the era’s equivalent of a pop hit. Engravings and etchings of the original, sold at concession stands, had made the work famous worldwide. “You could swoon before the Schenck painting and then take home your souvenir on the way out,” says Gott. “People in London, New York, and Sydney had the Schenck engraving on their walls.”

But Schenck’s appeal did not survive into the 20th century. By 1929, Anguish had already fallen from favour. When it was loaned to Perth Art Gallery for its centenary, it was slammed in The West Australian as “19th-century sentimentality at its worst”. It was swept away, along with most figurative art, by new frontiers of modernist art.

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For a time, Schenck’s sentimentality was only appreciated at an ironic distance. Perhaps surprisingly, one of his 20th-century admirers was Salvador Dali. The surrealist collected colour reproductions of Schenck’s popular works and painted over the top of them: sheep become coffee tables, a shepherd is transformed into an ashtray, a field of snow into a fabulous lounge rug.

“Dali is attracted to kitsch and sees Schenck as a kitsch leftover from the previous century,” says Gott. “He’s being playful, he’s being wicked. He’s taking something that was highly popular in the culture of his parents’ generation and he’s totally subverting it. He’s a real bad boy.”

But if other audiences had lost interest in Schenck’s work, Melbourne still couldn’t get enough. Anguish was enough of a cultural touchstone that it was frequently referenced in political cartoons through the early 20th century. It was voted one Victoria’s favourite artworks in 1906, and again in 2011. Whenever the NGV takes the painting down, the public demand it goes back up.

As someone born and raised in Melbourne, I can see why it never went out of fashion with locals. I can’t think of a picture that better captures the sublime, crushing experience of living in that city. A painting that – like the local weather, politics, and sports teams – will reliably surprise you and break your heart.

So, the Sad Sheep endures, startling and upsetting generation after generation of visitors to the NGV: quietly waiting, as it has for 140 years, to ruin your day.

Appreciation by Liam Pieper is published by Hamish Hamilton.

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