Philip Reinagle’s painting is a dramatic animal scene observed in close focus, where the main action of the predatory harrier takes place in the extreme foreground of the composition. The artist’s viewpoint is from a low height, and he has captured the action as if he were seated amid the waterside reeds. In the distance, a mallard duck can be seen making its escape in flight.
The artist chose to depict two common examples of British bird life. The bittern is a species of marsh bird, usually living solitarily, that is distinct for its unusual patterned feathers that helps it to remain camouflaged in surrounding marshy vegetation. Here, its considerable wingspan and subtly gradated feather patterns are spread out on the flattened marshes, as it is pinned down by its attacker. The harrier, also an inhabitant of marshland, is a species of the hawk family that is renowned for its formidable hunting and observational faculties, with the ability to swoop down on the birds, snakes, insects and small mammals of its prey.
Philip Reinagle was born in Edinburgh, the son of a Hungarian musician. He began his career as a portrait painter, eventually specialising in animal, sporting and landscape paintings. He studied at the Royal Academy Schools in 1769 and later worked as an assistant to Scottish portraitist Allan Ramsay, in whose studio he worked on numerous versions of portraits of King George III and Queen Charlotte. Reinagle exhibited his paintings in London at the Royal Academy and the British Institution during the late 18th to mid 19th centuries. His depictions of animals and landscapes were influenced by the Dutch painting. Two of his eleven children, Fanny and Charlotte, later went on to become painters of portraits, miniatures and landscapes.
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