From the earliest years of our lives and some of our earliest art as human beings (even perhaps before we were human beings), animals are everywhere in art. Before photography, art was the only way of providing any kind of accurate image of unknown species, and still is for those which are now extinct (often somewhat inaccurately). Whether showing off your prized livestock in a portrait, memorialising a beloved pet, or saying something a little more symbolic and esoteric, animals are everywhere in art, both as the centrepiece and as set-dressing.
Art of animals is really humanity’s oldest form of art after depictions of ourselves and abstract patterns. Some of it even pre-dates agriculture, and some of it wasn’t even made by our direct ancestors (Homo sapiens) but by a cousin human species, Neanderthal man (Homo neanderthalis). Many extremely ancient pieces of animal art are stored at the British Museum, although not all of it is on display.
Theories about why our distant ancestors and their cousins first started to depict animals vary: a lot of archaeologists have suggested that the images served a ritual or shamanistic purpose, perhaps helping early humans to get into the mindset of the animals they were hunting… or being hunted by. It’s worth remembering that the word “ritual” is something of a joke among archaeologists, because it can act as a catch-all for anything that doesn’t seem to have a logical function. Hunting scenes on cave walls could just as easily have been records of new hunting techniques that we just don’t know how to read.
Animals have always played a very important part in human life–providing us with food, and means of transport, and clothes, and many of the things we need to continue existing! Small wonder that our ancestors wanted to depict these very valuable commodities…
Because animals were incredibly valuable, they were also offered as sacrifices to the gods, on the understanding that something that was valuable for humans would also be a suitable gift to the gods (humanity can be very imaginative in some ways, and very unimaginative in others: we’re not entirely clear on why something that can create the world needs to be handed a cow they could have made themselves, and probably did in the first place).
For those who couldn’t afford a whole cow, sometimes an image was the next best thing (or a suitable alternative when actual cow stocks were low). Many of the small statues of livestock at the British Museum, for example, are votive offerings, intended to be left at a shrine of a god or local spirit.
Meanwhile the ancient Egyptians, quite sensibly, assumed that in the afterlife you’d probably need livestock in the same way you needed them in life–and made sure to send off their important internments with a mummified ox or two to make things a little easier.
Animals weren’t just offerings to the gods, or to the dead. They could also be gods or ancestors in disguise, a tradition that extended well beyond Europe. Zeus, the Greek thunder-god, often transformed himself into a bird or animal (or weirder things, like a shower of gold) to seduce women (and occasionally boys); the Norse god of mischief Loki transformed himself into a horse (also for dubious and sexual purposes), while in Japan the tradition went into reverse–mischievious fox spirits, kitsune, disguised themselves as people.
Holy animals, animal-headed gods, and animals that taught lessons have existed the world over: in North America Old Man Coyote got up to many unprintable tricks; in West Africa Anansi the spider occupied a similar role, while in many parts of western Europe it was the sneaky fox who kept playing tricks on people.
When did we start being “more realistic” about animals? That’s a difficult question. It’s possible that we were already being a different kind of realistic in the first place–but depictions of animals just being animals, as part of a landscape, has also been a long part of the tradition of representational art.
Back to Reality
As I’ve written before, the Reformation and the attendant mini iconoclasms had a profound effect on European art, and, accompanying a rapidly expanding view of the world as Europeans made their way to places they’d never seen before, the move to depict the world and its contents more realistically came from a variety of influences all at once. During a similar time period, Mughal India was also producing carefully observed art of natural history, while China already had centuries-old form for combining visual accuracy with symbolic meaning.
This eagerness to catalogue only increased with the founding of the Royal Society in the 17th century, the development of the microscope and increased anatomical understanding of both people and animals, and with the scientific revolution that took place through to the late 18th century.
Possibly one of the most famous animal artists was George Stubbs, who was intimately connected with the Jockey Club and the horse-racing world–a wildly popular sport in the 18th and early 19th century in particular. His major work, Anatomy of the Horse, detailed every physical aspect of these highly-prized animals and he was commissioned for “portraits” like the one above of prize-winning racehorses.
Although horses were his bread-and-butter, they weren’t his only animal art. He brought emotion to animals previously only viewed as walking flesh, as varied as lemurs and leopards, chronicling both an expanding world (the voyages and death of James Cook took place within his lifetime, introducing Europe to the kangaroo) and changing views of what animals were during hot philosophical debate (although the first horse protection law would not be enacted in the UK until after Stubbs’ death, moves away from the considering them fair game for rigorous abuse were already underway at the end of the 18th century).
You could argue in fact that Stubbs was instrumental in creating more sympathetic and sentimental images of animals, such as the world-famous His Master’s Voice by Francis Barraud, and the Landseer classic Monarch of the Glen. Studies for the latter were exhibited alongside other animal art by Landseer at the National Gallery recently, and he acted as a consultant in the design for the lions at the foot of Nelson’s column–directly opposite the gallery.
Stubbs’ paintings of “exotic” animals broke with previous traditions in depicting them not as dumb commodities, symbols of the wild or of human tendencies, but as creatures with an internal life of their own. Images of “new” animals to westerners were, previously, quite different.
Naturalists & Showmen
From well before the time of bestiaries (medieval encyclopedias of the natural world, often with dubious or highly ideological information in them), art was often the only way many people saw animals from foreign lands. Perhaps the lucky few would have the opportunity to see them in the form of taxidermy, or to be invited to the exhibition of a beast which had been brought into their country by a showman or an ambassador:
In an age of publicly-accessible zoos, wildlife documentaries, phone videos of people’s wildlife from around the world, and exquisite wildlife photography, it can be hard to imagine what it must have felt like seeing some of these animals for the first time, and via the medium of black and white woodcut prints in 17th century news sheets or pamphlets–sometimes drawn by people who hadn’t seen the animals either!
Recording accurate information about and images of new-to-Europeans animals and plants became more and more valued as the 17th and 18th centuries wore on, and the Europeans began to explore greater and greater areas of the world (see above).
Marian Sibylla Merian, who I’ve touched on before, was a key figure in this new art of natural history which sought to catalogue and codify the natural world based on observation, rather than on previous methods of philosophical expansion on classical texts (or, put more bluntly, “pulling things out of one’s arse, on the basis of very old books in which very old men had done much the same thing”).
This shift away from animals and the natural world as purely symbolic was a big step–animals as symbols were heavily embedded in the culture, and not just in Europe.
What Do They Mean?
People like to anthropomorphise (that is, ascribe human characteristics and behaviours to animals and even inanimate objects); it’s in our nature, the same way we see faces in everything. It’s also pretty common across human cultures for us to use animals as metaphors, to stand in for characteristics or values in people that we think we see in those animals–like doves for peace and fidelity, or owls for wisdom, or lions for courage and strength. People like to identify themselves with the animals that they think represent their own characteristics, too.
Because wildlife is different in different parts of the world, and cultures are different from place to place, animal symbolism is different from place to place (and throughout history).
This Edo-period macaque netsuke (toggle for belt loop-hanging) from Japan is a great way to illustrate just how animal symbolism can change over time: before the 13th century CE monkeys in Japan were regarded quite positively, as mediators between humanity and the gods–now they’re more of a symbol of foolishness. Meanwhile, monkeys in Western culture have symbolised deceitfulness, crudity, and foolishness for a long time–such as in the phrase, “to ape someone” (to copy them badly, or without full understanding of what they’re doing).
Animal symbolism in Chinese art has a venerable history too. Many different animals were (and continue to be) associated with wisdom, longevity, and fidelity, all highly-prized traits in many cultures. The tortoise, as you might expect for an animal that can live to well over a hundred years, is associated with long life. Animal symbolism continues to have a strong role in contemporary Chinese art.
Sometimes symbolism was less direct than one animal embodying a specific trait–instead of standing in for an individual concept linked to itself as a species, Rousseau’s Surprised tiger is an emblem of a world free of human civilisation, a wild and perfect Eden… as described a century before by his namesake Jean-Jacques.
Monarchs and emperors, political parties and whole nations have identified themselves with individual animals: from various Chinese emperors with the dragon, the state of Rome with the wolf, and England with both the lion and, more recently, the bulldog–to the US political parties as elephant and donkey. As well as communicating what qualities a leader or a nation wants to see in themselves (courage, strength, ruthlessness, venerability, stubbornness…), these identifications make it easy for artists to communicate political ideas visually both in the past and now…
The future of animals in art
How do we think about animals now?
In many parts of the world our relationship with animals hasn’t change–they’re still commodities and risks, symbols of our interactions with natural world, and gods in physical form. In Western media and cities they’re mostly pets, cartoon characters with personalities of their own.
As the scientific revolution that began in the 17th century continues, our approach to selective breeding of animals continues to change too–from designer cats (with inbuilt genetic defects) to transgenic sheep, none of it free from debate and associated satirical cartoons.
Our relationship with the wild is changing too–there’s less and less of it, and more and more people are unlikely to see much of their local wildlife the way they have in past centuries; we are also still just as hungry for the “exotic” as the Venetians who flocked to see a rhinoceros on display for the first time. In part, zoos cater to this desire, but for the majority of us, it’s photography and film footage that fulfils a need to connect with the animal life of the world. And it’s enormously popular.
In an age of global connection, people’s pets become celebrities, and subjects of new generations of animal art themselves–created with the same fervour and far greater quantity than religious art has ever been!
Animals still act as symbols, too. With individual species threatened with extinction due to pollution, habitat loss, and climate change, the more memorable of these animals can often come to stand in for the whole process of trying to protect the natural world from our own mistakes…
We are already graced with art of animal species which have since become extinct. In a world with an uncertain future, it’s possible there will be many more species that only exist in photographs or even old sketches in a museum drawer somewhere. It would be a terrible shame to lose them: while the exciting symbolism and skilful or imagination interpretations of animal life in art are beautiful and almost as limitless as human creativity itself, there’s still nothing quite like the real thing.
Carry on enjoying animals: If You Liked The Aquarium
Plants more your thing?: If You Liked Kew Gardens