Anguish: Ewe Mourns The Death of Her Lamb

“Sheep are able to experience emotions such as fear, anger, rage, despair, boredom, disgust, and happiness.”
 Dr. Isabelle Veissier et al., Animal Welfare1

The engraving below is entitled Anguish (Angoisses) 1879 artist Unknown, after August Friedrich Albrecht Schenck

The following is the original painting  (c. 1878) August Friedrich Albrecht SCHENCK

True benevolence, or compassion, extends itself through the whole of existence and sympathizes with the distress of every creature capable of sensation.
Joseph Addison (1672-1719) (English essayist, poet, playwright and politician)

When I first saw the engraving above, I had not up until then seen the painting,  I was profoundly moved, the artist has captured the anguish of the grieving ewe at the death of her tiny lamb.

Detail from the painting Auguish

Standing in the bleak snowy landscape of winter with large back birds (crows) waiting to devour the flesh of her newborn her sorrow is palpable. I find that in fact the engraving more keenly portrays the bleakness of despair than the painting.

I mostly appreciate art for aesthetic reasons but since seeing this work anguish most certainly conveys a meaningful message, particularly in view of the time of year and the recent death from exposure, pneumonia and hyperthermia of an estimated million tiny lambs here in the UK.

Schenck 1828 – 1901 was known for his paintings of animals, many of which were thought to be allegorical .

In Anguish, 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 crows may well be Schenck’s method of alluding to the inhumanity prevalent in society

Read More: –  Incidentally I don’t see the “stoic determination” only the despair.

Here is a philosophical interpretation:

“A mother has just lost her child; it is winter, and there’s no food. She knew he was in danger, she tried to feed him, she tried to keep him safe but in the end, after yet another bitter night, he succumbed. Her grief feels all the more real, all the more like ours, for being inarticulate and wordless; pure anguish. The crows are unbearably cruel. They gather when another is in agony; they sense the opportunity opened up by the problems of others. They are like the people we most fear – those who like it when we are miserable. The scene reminds us of a possibility we glimpse perhaps only in our own worst moments: that we won’t always be able to protect what we love, our children, our homes, our dignity… That they might win.”

Read More:

While the above perspectives treat this mostly as a metaphor for Human anguish and despair such of course can be manifest in animals, and sheep have emotions similar to our own.

Consider the following:

Sheep are capable of compassion and will help others even those of another species

Jeffery Massom in this book ‘The pig who Sang to the moon’ tells the story of Rammo, ” a macho two-year old Ramouillet ram” who formed a special and compassionate bond with Whisper, a cow who was born blind.

“Rams tend to be loners, and he was a pretty tough ram, so it seemed unusual that he would take up with a blind member of another species. But he did”

“He would graze next to her all day and guide her about the field, making certain she did not bump into the fence or posts…When she had a calf , Shout, sired by an Angus bull, Rammo behaved paternally toward the young animal, more so than even to his own offspring, several bouncy lambs. Whisper lived to be four years and than died in 1996 of a viral infection. Rammo mourned her a long time, standing by her dead body, calling and calling.”

Sheep grieve for their loved ones

10 Things Most People Don’t Know About Sheep

“Research has shown that many animals grieve for their lost loved ones, but did you know that sheep do too? When they lose someone they love, it can completely shake their world and leave them feeling lost and unsettled for months. Sheep have been known to cry out for their lost friends and family in a desperate attempt to understand why they are no longer here.”

Sheep fall in love and have best friends

(A) study showed that ewes fall in love with rams, have best friends and feel desolate when those close to them die or are sent for slaughter. The discovery could have important implications for the way farm animals are treated.
Jonathan Leake, Science Edito

So it can be established that sheep are capable of grief, therefore it is reasonable that the artist was actually portraying the anguish of the sheep and there was in fact no philosophical implication relating to human beings as such, though of course it can be implied. I am not inclined to accept artistic interpretations if they do not originate from the artist his or herself.

Maybe the art should be taken at face value which may be to convey the agony/anguish of a ewe for her dead lamb.

Personally I rather like this description with the exception of the reference to sheep being the humble servants of man:

” All the world to-day regards Schenck as one of our first animal-painters. He is one of those originals, of a species not yet extinct, who prefer dogs to men, and finds more sweetness in sheep than in women. With such fancies one leaves the city for the fields, and has only to do with animals. Our artist has taken this part after having profoundly studied his fellow-creatures. Retired to Ecouen, to a farm, he lives in the midst of oxen, dogs, goats, asses, horses and sheep of all types, races, and species ; cares for them, cultivates them, loves them, and above all studies them, as never artist studied his models. He knows better than any one their habitual behavior, their favorite poses, their preferred attitudes, and the mobile play of their physi- ognomies. By means of studying closely the joys and griefs of these’ modest companions and humble servants of man, he has penetrated the inmost recesses of their souls, which he knows how to show us in pictures of striking truth. His animals’ heads are portraits particularized with all the care which Cabanel, Uubufe, and Bonnat gave to the human mask. The picture which he exhibits to-day under the title of ‘Angoisses, ‘ is pathetic to the last degree. A lamb is wounded, lying on the ground, losing its blood, which pours out of a” horrible wound. The ravens, with their infallible instinct, scent the approaching death, and await their prey; their sinister circle is closed in, — the unfortunate little beast cannot escape them. The mother is- there ; she comprehends it, the poor creature ! the fate which awaits her dear nursling, and broken-hearted, full of anguish [it is the title of the picture, and it is just], she bleats for the shepherd who comes not. It is a little drama, this picture, and as poignant as if it had men for actors and victims.”


Catalogue of Mr. H.L. Dousman’s gallery of valuable paintings
by George A. Leavitt & Co

Published 1884  or

Below another poignant painting by the same artist entitled The Orphan. Below is a print of this painting.

A similar subject but in reverse the Orphan Lamb left to fend for his or herself.

His animals’ heads are veritable portraits. In the picture of The Orphan (which is a companion to Anguish, exhibited with it) the mother is dead or dying, and the ravens with their infallible instinct scent the soon-to-be carrion and close their sinister circle round the sheep and lamb. The poor living helpless lamb will hardly escape them. It is a tragedy, and as poignant as if it had a mother and child for actors and victims. There are few artists more popular than Schenck and we find the reflected judgment of the connoisseurs confirming the instantaneous verdict of the multitude.”

Anguish and animal rights

While the whys and wherefores, interpretations, history and so on are all very interesting; it is the subject of the art that rings so true. Both paintings depict the despair and anguish of these creatures extremely well. According to this article the painting has also been called Agony and indeed the agony of fear and sorrow is expressed on the sheep’s face and indeed on the face of the orphaned lamb. Amazing art, so powerful, so moving.

The lot of sheep left to fend for themselves in the bleak cold uplands of the UK and elsewhere the worldover has changed very little. You can read in a previous entry about the suffering of sheep and lambs who die from exposure:

Tiny fragile lambs born too early as a result of human manipulation to ensure they are ready for Easter. Very much like the paintings, no shepherd comes.

Apparently in a very literal way a bird similar to crows; ravens, are harming/killing newborn lambs, yet another hazard to contend with. Hundreds of lambs die as a result of conservation gone wrong, even 10 to 12 ewes have died as a result of attacks by ravens.

Time to stop interfering with nature, time to bring an end to farming and the enormous suffering not only to sheep and their vulnerable lambs but all farmed animals of course.

More paintings dramatically depicting the hardship of sheep:

Above is a print of Lost: Souvenir of Auvergne (which may be a religious metaphor)

An unknown work

Unfortunately there is not a lot of information about this artist or this series of paintings. Some of the information and graphics came from the following website:

5 thoughts on “Anguish: Ewe Mourns The Death of Her Lamb

  1. Excellent post and some very interesting art works. I think with sheep there is always a religious element – Jesus as Shepherd or lamb of God, so the painting could represent the grief and suffering of God or his followers.

    It’s interesting how any attempt to interpret such a painting leads to the anthroprocentric view that the sheep represents human suffering; it’s hard to take it at face value and see the suffering of animals.

    • Thank you for your interesting comment. I agree there is a religious element concerning sheep particularly in art, which is why I can never understand why lamb is eaten at Easter. I in fact did not notice the cross in the distance of Lost: Souvenir of AuvergneI until it was pointed out to me as I tend to take the paintings at face value, namely the suffering of sheep, which in the bleak uplands here in he UK is considerable.

  2. This is a beautiful post. Thank you for allowing me to make the acquaintance of this moving art. Living with his animals, Schenk clearly got to know all their characters, behaviour, feelings, quirks. Is is because humanity has become so remote from the natural world that farmed animals in particular are considered like and treated as kind of mechanical entities, ‘edible’ robots and not living, feeling creatures with whom we share so much of the same DNA? And who have experiences of birth, growth to adulthood, love, parenthood, friendship, happiness, grief, suffering, death so very much like our own?

    Forgive me if I said this already. I recently spent a lovely week with my American family, and one day while the general conversation was for some reason, about hens, my 6 year old granddaughter turned to me and said, “Chickens are people Grandma.” “Yes, they are”, replied one very happy grandmother. All animals are people, human and nonhuman. Thank you again! x

  3. Thank you for your encouraging comment. You are right that people are now so removed from the reality of farming that they consume meat without much thought that what they eat was once a living being who had feelings and emotions similar to their own and just like them wants to live.

    Thank you for sharing your lovely story about your granddaughter, really heartwarming, so refreshing. I think children are more aware of the true nature of animals than adults.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s