Joseph Wolf

Joseph Wolf was the finest wildlife illustrator and painter of the Victorian era. His work transformed the portrayal of animals in nature and inspired a new generation of artists.

Portrait of Joseph Wolf (1820-1899).

Portrait of Joseph Wolf (1820-1899).

Joseph Wolf was a pioneering wildlife artist. Whether creating a charcoal sketch or a dramatic oil painting, he had a unique talent for capturing the very essence of an animal. Unlike his contemporaries, Wolf painted wild creatures in their natural setting. By revealing their moods and behaviours, he allowed us to glimpse the reality of their everyday lives. His work paved the way for the wildlife art and illustration of today.


Born to paint

Joseph Wolf was born into a German farming family in 1820. A solitary boy, he spent his free time in the woods and fields, watching and recording the secret lives of mammals and birds.

He was passionate about sketching and painting at every opportunity. After many arguments, Wolf finally persuaded his father to let him leave the farm on the condition he find an apprenticeship in a reputable trade. This was the first step Wolf took to following his dream.

Bringing birds to life

In 1836 Wolf became an apprentice at Becker Brothers, a firm specialising in lithography - a way of producing prints from drawings on limestone. Wolf had a natural talent for the creative end of this process and was promoted from printing labels to more expressive work. While training, Wolf became aware of the wildlife art of others. He immediately knew he could do better.

Wolf finished his apprenticeship in 1839 and began seeking work in various German towns. He settled in Darmstadt and for several years became the premier illustrator, working for Germany's leading bird experts.

While in Darmstadt he also attended art classes, first experimenting with watercolour and later with oils. He progressed into the finest bird illustrator of his generation. His work set a new standard. At that time, most illustrations were of the unnatural bird on a perch, 'stump and stare' variety. Wolf breathed life into these stiff portraits. He painted birds in natural settings, conveying dynamism and character.

Wolf's talent combined a profound knowledge of animal behaviour with effortless draughtsmanship. He especially liked to paint birds of prey and game birds, with their subtle browns and greys.

'Life, life life - that's the great thing!'

Wolf in London

In 1848, Wolf accepted an invitation to work at the Natural History Museum (then part of the British Museum) in London. Through the Museum, Wolf was integrated into London society. Despite his humble beginnings, he was well received by the class-conscious arts and science establishments - his talent spoke for itself.

Wolf was commissioned by the Zoological Society of London to illustrate their scientific journals and sketch the rare and exotic animals arriving from the colonies. He illustrated works on two recently discovered animals - the gorilla and the aye-aye. He also produced works on such novelties as the hippopotamus, the giraffe, the giant anteater and Jumbo, the first African elephant to be seen in London. Eventually, two volumes of his zoological sketches were compiled and published for the general reader. At the time they sold as well as the novels of Charles Dickens.

Wolf's detailed observation of animal behaviour led to his collaboration with Charles Darwin on the book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. He provided the preliminary sketches on which many of the final illustrations were based.

Ripping yarns

With his unrivalled reputation, Wolf became the illustrator of choice for returning explorers, including Dr David Livingstone and Alfred Russel Wallace. They employed him to illustrate their encounters with fierce animals, great escapes and other tales of derring-do for the enjoyment of an eager public.

Fine art

In 1849 Wolf's painting Woodcocks Seeking Shelter was selected for display at the Royal Academy in London. This was the first of many paintings that tell a story. Wolf placed the animals in an action scene, conjuring atmosphere, emotion and tension. Wolf was always eager to explore painting technique and this adventurousness stayed with him throughout his life.

From 1850 onwards, Wolf received numerous commissions. The majority of his work hung in stately homes and royal palaces around Britain, yet remained almost unknown to the general public as he avoided selling through galleries.

'[Wolf was] without exception, the best all-round animal artist who ever lived' Sir Edwin Landseer, eminent Victorian animal painter

Innovation and inspiration

Joseph Wolf established wildlife art as a genre. The more you look at his paintings, the more you see, which is probably what he hoped to teach us. His work inspired the wildlife artists that followed him, such as George Lodge, Archibald Thorburn and the Swedish artist Bruno Liljefors. Wolf's work in both fine art and illustration is as relevant today as it was in his lifetime.


1820Born 21 January in Mörz, near Koblenz, Germany.
1834Sells early watercolours at the local market.
1836–39Apprenticed at the age of 16 to Becker Brothers lithographic printers, Koblenz.
1841–47Commissioned as a lithographer by leading German bird experts.
1843–47Attends art classes.
1848Revolution in Germany.
1848Wolf moves to London to work for the Museum (then part of British Museum)
1849Woodcocks Seeking Shelter is exhibited at the Royal Academy summer show. Wolf begins taking commissions for his wildlife paintings.
1851Wolf becomes official artist for the Zoological Society of London. He illustrates many important scientific journals and monographs.
1853Birth of Van Gogh.
1855Wolf's illegitimate daughter, Helen Elizabeth Wolf Cooper, is baptized.
1857Wolf illustrates Dr Livingstone's memoir of South Africa. He works for many explorers and adventurers in the following years.
1859Charles Darwin publishes The Origin of Species.
1861Wolf's second illegitimate daughter, Elizabeth, is born.
1869Wolf illustrates The Malay Archipelago for Alfred Russel Wallace.
1872Works for Charles Darwin on The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals.
1899Wolf continues to paint and illustrate natural history until the end of his life. He died 20 April in London.
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