Residents of certain urban areas can very well go through their day without ever running into an animal. The occasional fly or pigeon only reinforce the dramatic shift in balance between men and animals on Earth. Regardless, animals seem to have always hunted our imagination, and their presence in art is as unyielding as ever. They can be the subject of art, the raw material used to create it, serve as a repository for symbols, and even as an unsettling double.
1. Strangely human
From La Fontaine’s fables to Orwell’s Animal Farm, authors spoke about sensitive topics through animal protagonists. Similarly, because the church proscribed altering the human body, the first surgical dissections were performed on pigs, a fortunate choice since humans and pigs share numerous genetic features. From the Middle Ages up to the 18th century, animals have also been put on trial, and even excommunicated.
- The fashionable ox
Caricature was flourishing in France after the 1789 Revolution. Morals and behaviors, politicians, and famous figures were subjects of satire. In 1797, a set of prints poked fun at the extravagant outfits adorned with feathers, abundant ribbons and jewelry, worn during that time by both women and men. Several versions of this fashionable ox print circulated and the image became so famous that it was used as the sign of a restaurant in Paris. Although the establishment shut down in 1936, the sign representing a sculpted version of the ox can still be seen in Paris at 8, Valois street.
- The laughing cow
French illustrator Benjamin Rabier is the creator of the famous laughing cow appearing on cheese packages. He was already known as a children’s book illustrator when he was recruited for World War One. During the war he designed the label for the French army’s Fresh meat supplier (Ravitaillement en Viande Fraîche), a merry cow called « La Wachkyrie », a mischievous allusion to the German Valkyries. Soon after, the design was reused for a fox-trot score composed by a former soldier, who distributed it to all his fellow conscripts, including a cheese maker, Léon Bel.
- The oblivious rabbit
A figure printed in every Parisian commuter’s memory is a two-legged rabbit called Serge le Lapin (= Serge the Rabbit): a distracted rabbit teaching passagers how to safely use the subway. Initially created in 1977 by Anne Le Lagadec, the figure was modified in 1986 by Serge Maury, and it became so widespread that it took on the author’s name. Today, Serge le Lapin has its own Twitter account and his image is used to sell by-products or to convey militant or satirical messages about current events.
2. Raw matter
Ancient American civilizations mastered the art of feathers, as witnessed by their spectacular headdresses and other ornemental fabrics. One of the highlights in Vienna’s Weltmuseum is a 16th century Aztec headdress, made of various types of colorful feathers. Around 25.000 BC people were already using ivory (tusks or teeth of certain animals) to sculpt figures, while during the Renaissance, cabinets of curiosities gathered unique and unusual species from Europe and other recently discovered territories. Nowadays, contemporary artist Damien Hirst uses real flies to create dark and haunting « paintings », or displays bisected animals preserved in formaldehyde.
- The inflated buffalos
In Northern India, people used mussucks, inflated buffalo or bullock skins, as rafts. Samuel Bourne, a British photographer travelling through India in the 19th century is one of the artists who captured these surreal carcass-ballons, used by locals to transfer people and goods across strenuous mountain streams.
- The incomplete rhinos
It is widely known that rhinoceros are an endangered species because poachers hunt them down for their horns. Used in traditional medicine (especially in Asia) and believed to have all types of ludicrous therapeutic properties, horns are as expensive as gold on the black market. It’s no surprise that not even rhinos preserved in museums have been spared. In Great Britain, France, and Austria, museums have been targeted by poachers and as a result some institutions have taken drastic measures to ward off the danger. The museum of natural history in Paris replaced rhinoceros horns with fake ones, while in Amsterdam, curators decided to cover them with paint, rendering them useless, as this article illustrates.
- The 500 sheep
During the 2nd century AD, in the ancient Greek city of Pergamon, an invention transformed the way text was transmitted. Parchment, treated animal skin, replaced the plant-based Egyptian papyrus, and thus the codex took the place of scrolls. Scraped and treated sheep, cow or goat skin offers a foldable surface, that can hold text on both sides. The earliest complete Latin Bible, the Codex Amiatinus, produced around 700 in England and weighing about 34 kilograms, required more than 500 sheep skins.
3. Furry portraits
Some of the earliest murals found in caves represent animals. Since then, art history has seen the development of animal art, with several artists distinguishing themselves as masters of the genre.
- The plucked ducks
Contrary to common belief, the ancient Egyptians did not worship animals, but rather considered them manifestations of the divine. The behavior of an animal served as a means to explain certain traits of Egyptian gods. This is consistent with the fact that ancient Egypt was an agrarian society, and people lived in close proximity to animals. So much so that more than a quarter of all hieroglyphs represent animals. Birds were highly appreciated for their nutritional value, and Egyptians were especially fond of duck. Some funerary offerings take the form of sculpted ducks, already plucked and ready to be cooked, insuring the eternal meal of the dead.
- The beached whale
Beached whales are not a contemporary phenomenon, as this 17th century engraving demonstrates. It represents a whale on a Dutch beach, surrounded by curious crowds. The Count Ernst Casimir of Nassau-Dietz is seen in the center, protecting his nose with a handkerchief. The presence of the artist on the left hand side, busy drawing the animal, is a device guaranteeing the accuracy of the representation. However, the engraving is not a mere naturalistic or scientific representation of an animal. This unexpected beaching, accurately registered by historians on the 19th of December 1601, paired with the sun eclipse chronicled only a week later (illustrated in the upper frame), were seen as a bad omen in the context of the ongoing war between the United Provinces of the Netherlands and Spain.
- The celebrity giraffe
As commercial routes expanded during the 18th century, several exotic animals made it to Europe, triggering massive interest and leaving traces in art and literature. Certain animals became celebrities, like Zarafa, the giraffe offered by Muhammad Ali of Egypt to the French king Charles X in 1826. Two other giraffes were offered to George IV of Great Britain and to the Austrian emperor Francis II, but only Zarafa lived long enough to become famous. She arrived by boat to Marseilles, and travelled by foot to Paris, attracting crowds in every city it transited. Her figure appears in paintings, engravings, ceramics and even in fashion. Giraffe-yellow became a popular color, women wore hairstyles « à la girafe » and men wore a giraffe knot on their tie. A taxidermied Zarafa can be seen at the natural history museum in La Rochelle, France.
4. A colorful bestiary
On a page of an English medieval manuscript, two lions are represented sleeping with their eyes open. It is not a On a page of an English medieval manuscript, two lions are represented sleeping with their eyes open. It is not a scientific study of this mammal, but a symbolic image carrying a religious message. Just like in the case of the lion, the human nature of Christ on the Cross was asleep, while his divine nature was watching over. This type of bestiary, an illustrated animal treaty, is very popular among scholars at the end of the 12th century in Europe. Richly decorated, these manuscripts present the characteristics of animals and sometimes plants, from a religious perspective. Across art history, animals are more than they might seem.
- The unexpected snail
Francesco del Cossa’s representation of the Annunciation is a typical Renaissance rendering of the biblical subject, with a twist : a rather sizable snail is crossing the bottom of the scene. There are multiple interpretations of this presence : the snail is a common figure in funerary scenes, since it emerges from its shell the same way the dead will rise for the Last Jugement. The future birth of Christ, revealed by the painting, is a guarantee that the virtuous will be spared. At the same time, the slowness of the snail could be a nod to a subject matter consuming the exegetes during the Renaissance : the unbearably long span of time between the fall of Adam and Eve and the coming of Christ. Even more subtly, the snail is the picture perfect animal for the blind look, since gastropods have notoriously bad vision. Looking at this perfect rendering of a perspective box, a plausible interior and characters unravel before our eyes, but its message and significance are essentially hidden to the eye.
- The racy lioness
The symbol of the Catalan city of Girona, close to Barcelona, is a statue of a lioness climbing a column. The 12th century statue situated in the old part of the town is said to protect travelers. Any local leaving on a trip, or visitor preparing their voyage back home, should kiss the lioness’ derrière for good luck. Nonetheless, the enthusiasm for its apotropaic qualities has proved to be highly perilous.
- The eerie bug
Casa Calvet in Barcelona is one of Gaudi’s more tame creations, since the architect had to work with the distinctive features of the terrain and the requirements of the future owner. However, animal and mineral shapes and textures associated with his style, and with Art Nouveau in general, are abundantly present. At the Calvet house, the door-knocker consists of an elaborate mobile handle, crushing a giant bug.
- The proud rooster
A national symbol of France, the rooster appears on everything from the gilded gates leading to the President’s Parisian palace, to the t-shirts worn by the national football team. Its association with the French is very old: the latin word gallus translates as « Gauls » (the ancestors of the French) as well as « cock » or « rooster ». A bronze rooster topped the spire of Notre-Dame de Paris, before it completely collapsed during the 2019 fire. The sculpture served as a lightning rod, but it also contained holy relics from the Holy Crown, Saint Denis of Paris, and Saint Genevieve. After the fire, the sculpture was remarkably found, and is expected to be restored and re-installed.