The Book, Cat, & Cat Book Lovers Almanac

of historical trivia regarding books, cats, and other animals. Actually this blog has evolved so that it is described better as a blog about cats in history and culture. And we take as a theme the advice of Aldous Huxley: If you want to be a writer, get some cats. Don't forget to see the archived articles linked at the bottom of the page.

February 20, 2014

February 20, 1900

                                     WHO PAINTED THIS STRANGE PICTURE?
Look closely at it.

Short answer:

William Holbrook Beard (April 13, 1825 to February 20, 1900) was the painter who titled this work, "The Power of Death". Based on his other work, perhaps illustrator is a better term for Beard. In his time he was very popular. Most of his work fits the dogs playing poker category.  Against the backdrop of a different era, (our ancestors went to public executions and watched elephants being electrocuted), the picture above seems strangely moving to me.  

Long answer: I don't know.

In view of his obscurity today, a look at his biography could be extensive. The excerpts below are from Book of the Artists: American Artist Life, Comprising Biographical and Critical Sketches of American Artists: Preceded by an Historical Account of the Rise and Progress of Art in America (1867). The author of this book, Henry Theodore Tuckerman, answers our question in this manner:

...William H. Beard was born in what was then the backwoods settlement of Painesville, Ohio, now the most beautiful village of the West, where he remained until about his eighteenth year, with a history similar to most country-bred boys, and not unusual in its experience, unless it might be a great fondness for the rifle, and all woodland sports and pastimes. His mother, who was left a widow when William was yet an infant, made every effort to give her youngest son a liberal education, with but partial success however; for the boy had other tastes, and little fondness for books, save the great book of nature, which it was his constant joy to study,... He was well known in the town and the country round about for these acquirements, as well as for being a good shot, a good swimmer, and "hard to handle," which means a good wrestler—with its kindred accomplishments. ...
[H]is first attempt to earn his bread by painting portraits, [met] with very little success; "a prophet is not without honor," etc. He therefore resolved to try his fortune in strange lands, and, about his twenty-first year, started on a tour through the western towns of his native State as a peripatetic portrait-painter. As he himself expressed it, his mission was to "take the conceit out of people." This was said in consequence of an unhappy propensity he had of seizing upon those characteristics and peculiarities in his sitters, which the fond original vainly hoped would be treated with considerate moderation;—enlarging upon them, and producing altogether a result more satisfactory and amusing to others than flattering to the vanity of the poor victims. But as few persons cared to have such service performed for them, he was rewarded with but indifferent success. He at length determined to make a bold push, and try the "much feared " city. Accordingly he went to Buffalo, and opened a studio about the year 1850. Not depending so much upon portrait-painting, however, and finally abandoning it altogether, he struggled on with varied success for some six or eight years, gradually making a local reputation, and forming valuable friendships and acquaintances, among whom was Mr. Thomas LeClear. Procuring orders sufficient to keep him busy during his stay, he was enabled to go to Europe, where he spent his time chiefly in Dusseldorf, Switzerland, and Rome. Here he first met with many of his now distinguished countrymen—Leutze, Gifford, Whittredge, Bierstadt, and others. Returning to Buffalo, after an absence of a little less than two years, he married Miss Johnson, a granddaughter of Judge Wilkeson, a prominent citizen of Buffalo. But this great happiness of his life was soon followed by its greatest sorrow; after a few days' illness his beautiful wife died within a few months after their marriage. Then the household was broken up, and Mr. Beard removed to New York in 1860, with blighted hopes and a saddened life, to begin the world again, as it were. He brought with him a few humorous pictures,—" The Astronomer," "The Owl," ''Bears on a Bender," and "Grimalkin's Dream." These were more popular than the artist had anticipated, and even more so than he afterward desired, for most of his orders since have been for pictures of like character. Mr. Beard again married in 1863 the daughter of his old friend LeClear.

This regret is natural on the part of an artist who feels capable of other kinds of work than the special one which public favor recognizes. Still, the verdict is a good evidence of his originality. A judicious critic thus estimates Beard's more recent pictures, their significance and intrinsic merit:—

Aesop's Fables are fine specimens of satire, and that which he so successfully accomplished with his pen, has, in a different but equally admirable manner, been effected by the pencil of an American painter. William H. Beard has produced in his pictures some of the most caustic satires on humanity which the age has known. ....

Somewhat in the vein of Kaulbach, but with thoroughly American humorous traits, Beard has painted what an experienced art-student justly calls "jokes vital with merry thought and healthful absurdity." His "Court of Justice," wherein all parties are represented by monkeys, is a most suggestive satire; and his "Bear Dance" has all the phases of a ball-room, with "four-legged humanity" to emphasize its naturalness. Of "The Watchers" it has been said: "It is a picture representing a dying elk, surrounded by six or eight ravens waiting patiently for its eyes to close in death before they pounce upon him. The biting satire, the grim humor, and the quasi-melancholy conveyed by the picture are unmistakable. The poor stricken elk lies stretched upon the sward of the prairie, its limbs relaxed, its strength ebbing with the flowing of its life-blood, its soft, dark eyes rapidly glazing, a piteous expression on its face, as if aware of the fate awaiting it; while the ill-omened birds, like black shadows of death, are clustered around it on the ground...."

Among Beard's pictures is a patriotic allegory, "The Guardians ot the Flag," ...."In and Out," a clever little piece devoted to the chase of rats by an excited puss. Other of his pictures are "Grimalkin's Dream," "The Intruding Guinea-Pig," "Deer on the Prairie," "Christmas Eve," "Little Red Riding Hood," "Raining Cats and Dogs," "In the Woods," "Exchanging Epithets," "A Bird in the Hand," etc., etc.

All I can really say about the painting, is the artist had experience picking up feral kittens, perhaps to drown them, I don't know, but the artist has picked up a wild baby cat. You don't hold by the back of the neck a feline weighing more than a pound.  

That's enough of the 19th century for awhile. 

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