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The Anguish of Loss

At a recent visit to the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV), a particular painting really struck a cord. July is National Bereaved Parents Awareness Month, so in this post we are delving into a captivating oil painting by Augustus Friedrich Albrecht Schenck, which vividly captures the sense of anguish of loosing a child.

Anguish c. 1878

Augustus Friedrich Albrecht Schenck

oil on canvas

151.0 x 251.2 cm

National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

Purchased, 1880 (p. 307.6-1)


When we reached out to the NGV for comment on this painting, they kindly supplied the below information:

"As a young man, the Dutch-born artist Augustus Friedrich Albrecht Schenck settled in Paris, where he studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. Schenck spent most of his career in France, specialising in painting landscapes and animal subjects. For over thirty years, he was a regular contributor to the Paris Salons, where Anguish was exhibited in 1878.


In this painting, Schenck has given his distraught ewe an expression suggestive of despair mingled with stoic determination. Recognizing these decidedly human responses, the viewer might be expected to identify immediately with the animal’s grim predicament. The ewe’s bravery in the face of the threat posed by the murderous circle of crows is perhaps, however, somewhat overstated in her defiant stance above the bleeding lamb. There is little subtlety evident in this work.


Although Anguish has a sentimental quality, Schenck did not intend this to be overt.. Indeed, his sincerity in portraying the nobility in animals was not lost on his contemporaries, with a critic for Le Figaro describing the artist in 1878 as "One of our finest animal painters. He is one of those originals of the species not yet extinct who prefer dogs to men and find more sweetness in sheep than women." This is by no means a derogatory statement, but is, rather, a testament to Schenck’s abilities as a painter.


Interestingly, if we accept that there is an anthropomorphic quality in Anguish, then the surreal massing of the crow’s may well ne Schenck’s method of alluding to the inhumanity prevalent in society. He may here be examining the broader human condition, in the context of animal painting."


For a bereaved parent, looking at this painting may produce a whole host of emotions, ranging from sympathy and recognition to desperation and anger. We can imagine that many would identify with the anguished mother sheep protecting her dead ewe against the threatening presence of the black crows and refusing to budge from its side.

This protective, cradling gesture is one often found in our portraits, too. Mirroring a natural instinct to keep what we hold dear safe and protect it from harm, many applications for portraits we receive are from parents who seek a portrait of themselves holding their child - especially if no such photo exists in real life.

Mia Jeanine with her mum and dad

If you are a parent grieving the loss of your child this National Bereaved Parents Awareness Month, please get in touch or apply for your keepsake portrait via the "Apply" button on our website.


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