Since humans (and artists) have existed, animals have been a source of inspiration. From art representing daily life, to myths and legends, to scientific depictions, to more abstract ones, animals have been portrayed many different ways in every culture on every continent. Art as we know it would not exist if animals weren’t a prominent subject for artists.
In prehistoric times, it was common for people to decorate their caved with the images of the animals in their environment. Mainly inspired by hunting, these are remarkable depictions of liveliness and realism.
Art in the Medieval ages used mythical creatures to decorate manuscripts, and real animals were often used as symbols. For example, the lamb was adopted as a symbol for Jesus Christ, birds as “winged souls”, and butterflies as loyalty.
Artists like Albrecht Dürer in the 16th century used mathematics in art and carefully studied the anatomy of animals, setting new standards for artists. In the 17th century, hunting scenes were popular, depicting dramatic life and death struggles between man and animal. Artists at this time were also often responsible for bringing newly discovered animals to the public eye. In a previous blog I’ve written about how rhinoceroses have been depicted over the centuries and Dürer’s work in the field.
It was then that the more scientific approach to the study of animals led to wildlife art as we know it. The early writers on natural history wanted to illustrate the species they were describing and classifying. The development of hand-coloured copper plate engraving gave illustrators more scope and made books on natural history very popular in the 18th century.
Then in the 19th and 20th century there were many that used animals to express ideas about design and composition, pattern and colour, rather than getting every detail “right” in a photographic sense.
The point being that animals and art have always co-existed and animals have been a huge part of the development of art. From the first cave painting to contemporary portrayals, animals in art reveal a lot about our times and environment.
Iconic Depictions of Animals in Art
Here are a few examples you probably know of animals being portrayed in art.
In Frida Kahlo’s self portraits she represented herself numerous times in the company of her various pets, which included exotic birds, monkeys, and deer.
While Vincent Van Gogh’s most well-known paintings are probably his Sunflowers or Starry Night, his Two Crabs painting is an exuberant almost active depiction of crabs.
C M Coolidge was widely known for producing somewhat comical paintings of various animals engaged in different human activities, and A Friend in Need is one of the most iconic works in modern times.
George Stubbs was a British equine artist, specialising in animal art. Whistlejacket is a famous life-size painting portraying the racing horse in a monumental pose.
Often in my classes an animal is the subject, and I love seeing how many different interpretations there are of the same animal. As an example, recently we did cosy cats in class and they are so cute!
And of course my own art is heavily focused on animals, which I have also written about before.
To see more examples from my students and other animals we have done, check out my Facebook page. Animals in art have always existed, and will continue to exist in many different forms for years to come.