One of the best things about paintings is how well they communicate a multitude of emotions with just one frame. The painting “Anguish” (Angoisse) by German artist August Friedrich Schenck is one such artwork that says so much with so little.
What you see in this painting is a simple scene that does not involve a single human, yet it is something every human can empathize and sympathize with. Just two sheep and a murder of crows is enough to make any person experience the sorrow the sheep is feeling.
So what is it about ‘Anguish’ that makes it so relatable and powerful without placing a single human in the scene? Let’s find out.
The most important part of this painting is the scene it features. A mother sheep is standing in the middle of the canvas, right next to a dead lamb. This dead lamb is the sheep’s child.
Large ravens have gathered around the mother and child, and we all know why. They have gathered there to feast on the dead lamb. You can see the sheer number of crows standing around the sheep and the lamb while more are coming from the distance.
The scene is certainly a sad one. But what enhances the effect of the scene more is what the sheep is doing. The painter has shown the sheep bleating, looking up in the sky. But we cannot hear the bleats, can we?
To us, it looks like the sheep is screaming in pain and anguish. She is crying out for help in desperation. But she is all alone in the middle of nowhere. We know that no help is going to arrive.
The desperate cry for help and her sad situation makes the death even more hard-hitting. But there’s more.
The scene with the sheep and the dead lamb is painful and gut-wrenching in itself, but the addition of crows adds a dark aspect to it. With the crows, the scene turns from sad to disturbing.
These ravens are not bothered by the bleating sheep. They are all waiting for her to leave, fall down after getting tired, or even die so that they can start eating the lamb.
This makes the scene disturbing and disheartening and delivers a deep impact on the viewers. We know the pain the sheep is in right now, but what’s worse is that soon she will have to make a choice; either stay there and die or move ahead and watch her child get eaten by the crows.
Apart from the scene and the crows that make things worse, the environment also adds to the effect. The dull, cloudy sky with a reddish tint makes the entire world look “hellish.”
The snow on the ground makes the viewers feel the cold of the place while enhancing the black crows in the scene. Notice how the color of the sheep matches the color of the sky?
All of these effects play in the background making the scene so powerful and visceral. Coming to visceral, there is another important aspect of the painting that you need to know.
We, humans, have the tendency to project human emotions and feelings onto animals and other inanimate objects. That’s why this scene feels so heart-wrenching.
You are not seeing a sheep and a lamb with some crows around. You are seeing a bereaved mother crying in pain for her dead child while people around her just watch with no empathy. All they want is to go so that they can enjoy the free meal.
In reality, people do not eat the deceased. The crows here sitting and waiting work as a metaphor for people who start gossiping, talking about someone’s personal tragedy.
Finally, this painting uses a simple scene and makes a deep impact on the viewers. It makes us feel what the animal is feeling and in a way relate to it. It creates a compelling metaphor, making us realize how suffering connects all living beings.
Historical Context and Other Paintings
Out of all the paintings August Friedrich Schenck made, “Anguish” is his most famous and remarkable work. It was so powerful and moving that the artist also made a variation of this painting called “Orphan.”
In this painting, you can see the death has been reversed, with the lamb alive and the mother sheep dead. The lamb is crying in helplessness and there is no one there to help it.
Schenck has used the title “Orphan” to evoke a connection between us and the animal. A lamb with a dead sheep does not strike us as an orphan lamb with a dead mother does.
The painting “Anguish” by August Friedrich Schenck, although not specifically related to the traditional subject of the “Pieta,” shares a similarity in the portrayal of intense emotions and the underlying themes of grief and sorrow.
“La Pieta,” a renowned sculpture created by Michelangelo, depicts the Virgin Mary holding the lifeless body of Jesus after his crucifixion. It represents the profound anguish and mourning of a mother over the loss of her son, encapsulating themes of suffering, sacrifice, and redemption.
Similarly, Schenck’s painting “Anguish” portrays a mother sheep mourning the loss of her lamb. The emotional intensity and the sorrowful atmosphere evoked by the painting draw parallels to the grief depicted in the “Pieta.”
Both artworks capture the depth of human or animal suffering and evoke a sense of empathy and compassion in the viewer. While the “Pieta” focuses on the ultimate sacrifice and the grief of a mother over her divine son, “Anguish” explores the universal themes of loss, vulnerability, and the innate connection between a mother and her offspring.
“Anguish” was painted in the year 1878 and is currently at the National Gallery of Victoria. Out of all the paintings in the gallery, this painting has been consistently the most viewed one.
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