About the artwork
Hubert von Herkomer made his name illustrating books and periodicals in the late 1860s, exploring themes of social deprivation. Born in Bavaria, he came to settle in Southampton in 1856, after living in the USA. Alongside illustrating he enjoyed success painting peasant subjects and portraits. However his real motivation lay in pursuing social-realism in his works. It is suggested that his experiences as an immigrant fuelled his choice of working class and ethnic minorities as subject matter.
Inspired by a visit to the Chapel of the Royal Hospital, Chelsea, a home for veteran soldiers who were unable to support themselves after leaving the army, Herkomer was to produce the defining work of his career, ‘The Last Muster’. The painting was taken from a wood engraving Herkomer had produced for the ‘Graphic’ magazine in February 1871 and translated on to canvas in 1875.
Set among a full congregation of ‘Chelsea pensioners’ the central action of the painting is subtly focused on the two figures on the second row. The old soldier at the end of the row has passed peacefully away during the service and his neighbour noticing, has turned to feel his lifeless wrist. The analysis of the paintings offered in the ‘Athenaeum’ comments 'The features of the time-worn face have a still dignity and beauty about them which is very touching and fine; the white hair of the old soldier is neatly kept, and he has been trimly shaved; his hat, with the handkerchief in it, was placed at his feet in due order, - acts which marked, while they concluded, a long life of discipline.'
No preliminary sketches or drawings for the work were made. Instead figures were sketched directly onto the canvas from models. Approximately seventy pensioners are depicted in the painting and its impact stems from Herkomer's sensitive portrayal of their individual characters. The artist wrote
'The idea was to make every man tell some different story, to be told by his type of face and expression or by some selection of attitude.'
A number of the figures in the congregation are references to his friends and relatives. The white bearded figure on the third row is modelled on Herkomer's father. The figures along the back wall of the chapel include representations of his first wife, Anna; his patron, CE Fry and his family; along with a figure modelled on himself. Frederic Lord Leighton praised the painting, particularly the 'close observation of character'. Herkomer was delighted by this.
A very successful painting, the work was bought by CE Fry for £1,200 before being sent to the Royal Academy, where the hanging committee clapped as the painting was brought in front of them. 'The Last Muster' won a gold medal at the Paris Universal Exhibition in 1878, an accolade only awarded to one other British painter, John Everett Millais.
It was unusual for Victorian artists to use such challenging subject matter as poverty and death in their work, especially on a grand scale as Herkomer did with this painting. Another painting by Herkomer using this type of subject matter is 'Eventide: A Scene in the Westminster Union', on display at the Walker. Herkomer painted this in 1878, a few years after the success of 'The Last Muster'. Again he explores the themes of poverty and deprivation, this time depicting a group of elderly women in the workhouse. Hubert von Herkomer and fellow social realist painter Luke Fildes, had an influence on the early work of Vincent van Gogh.
Lord Leverhulme obtained 'The Last Muster' for his collection from a sale at Christies in 1923.