Artefact of the month - December
The painting of ‘Wapiti in the snow’ has been selected as the December artefact for its seasonal appeal.
Wapiti in the snow. A watercolour, signed by the artist Joseph Wolf, and dated January 1881. c27 x 37 cm. The painting is in a sealed window mount and guarded into an album of watercolours by Wolf. The provenance is not known but it was probably commissioned by the Society.
Wapiti (Cervus elaphus)
Wapiti (Cervus elaphus) are large red deer which live in North America. They can be identified by the distinctive yellow rump found on both sexes. ‘Wapiti’ is the name originally given to them by North American Indians meaning ‘white rump’. They are also called Elk. Wapiti are found throughout North America where for most of the year they live in single-sex herds in open forest. Only males have antlers. By the end of winter (March-April) the antlers are shed and about a week later they start to grow again. The antlers may be 1.2 m (4 feet) long and characteristically have 6-tines or prongs. Wapiti have a unique mating ritual in which the males engage in posturing, antler wresting and bugling (emitting loud screams) in the rutting season that extends from August to early winter.
In this painting, Wolf has shown two adult male wapiti searching for food in a snowy landscape lit by a hazy sun. The distinctive yellow rump is clearly shown in both animals and the dark brown ruff on the neck which is grown in winter. The furthest stag is displaying a fine pair of antlers each with 6 tines. However, the right antler of the animal in the foreground is abnormal and has no tines. Wapiti are popular game animals in America and in the wild such animals would be shot so that they could not breed and pass on the condition to the next generation. Records show that Wapiti were living and breeding in London Zoo from 1829 indicating that the animals adapted well to captivity. It is probable Wolf used the Wapiti in the Zoo as models for this painting.
Joseph Wolf (1820-1899) was born in Germany into a farming family where he acquired his lifelong love of wildlife. He trained as an artist and lithographer. His magnificent paintings of birds of prey in life size for H. Schlegel and A.H. Verster van Wulverhorst’s famous book Traité de Fauconnerie (1844-53) sealed Wolf’s reputation on the Continent but there were greater opportunities for natural history artists in England. Wolf did not hesitate when he was encouraged to come to London in 1848 by D.W. Mitchell to share with him the illustration of G.R. Gray’s Genera of birds (1844-49). Mitchell was also the Secretary of ZSL and wanted an accurate artistic record of its newly acquired and attractive animals. Wolf got that commission too, the start of a life-long association with the Society. In 1848 the Society’s scientific journal, Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London (PZS) was published with colour illustrations for the first time. Over the next 30 years Wolf produced 340 colour plates for the Proceedings which were some of the most attractive ever published in it. The Society also published