Animals in the History of Visual Art: A Deep Dive
At least 45,000 years ago, early humans began marking surfaces with representations that reflected a vivid conceptualization of their surroundings. And although evidence of parietal art exists at sites scattered across the globe, there are numerous motifs that feature relatively frequently.
Perhaps one of the most striking motifs of cave art is the intricate likenesses of ancient animal species. We know that early humans hunted animals for meat, bone and leather, but many cave art depictions characterize ancient creatures outside the context of human predation.
Throughout history, the expansion and culture of the human race has been tied to the resources other species provide. As humanity developed, animals inevitably became the subjects of folkloric and religious narratives. Art began to contrast the companionship of some species with the wildness of others. Animals were adopted as symbols, emblems, totems or as a means to impart stories, lessons or moral values. In modernity, the collision of the natural and the artificial is told through the eyes of diminishing or extinguished species.
Animals in Prehistoric Art
Located in the sheer mountains of East Kalimantan, the Lubang Jeriji Saleh cave shelters a 40,000-year-old depiction of a wild bull. The bull, part of a trio of rounded bovine figures, measures over 1.5 meters across. Painted in a rusty ochre, the likeness of the large cattle-like beast, whose relatives may still roam local forests today, has been established as a contender for the oldest known example of figurative cave art.
Several theories have emerged concerning the impetus behind rendering animals in rock paintings. One interpretation is that these artworks are remnants of magic designed to summon an abundance of prey to hunt. However, analysis of Paleolithic diets found near rock art sites didn't quite match this hypothesis. For example, at the Lascaux cave site complex in France, 90% of the bones found were identified as reindeer, but there is only one painting of reindeer in the same location . While many researchers have accepted that some elements of the hunting magic hypothesis could be likely, the theory doesn't explain everything.
Other theories on the motivations of cave artists include Paleolithic shamanic rituals or an activity carried out as a means of plotting an upcoming hunt. We may never know the exact reason why animals were depicted so prominently in ancient caves, but the evidence suggests that, at the very least, the paintings are evidence of artistic manifestations inspired by observations and interactions between human species and other non-human prehistoric life.
Animal Art in Ancient Egypt and Africa
Often worshipped as deities, both domesticated and undomesticated animals played a vital role in ancient Egyptian culture and art. In the Book of the Dead, the sun god Ra is depicted as taking the form of a cat to kill the serpent Apep. The canine-headed deity Anubis was widely worshipped and featured heavily in temple and tomb paintings. From as early as the Predynastic Period, monkeys performing human activities and wearing leashes are rendered in painted motifs. Hippopotami also appear frequently in ancient Egyptian tomb scenes, often being trailed by a Pharaoh wielding a harpoon.
Adopted by the Egyptians as a symbol of creation and regeneration, amulets modelled after scarab beetles were commonly worn by Ancient Egyptians from the 6th Dynasty of the Old Kingdom Period. The image of the scarab was also incorporated into funerary decorations and painted in tombs. Horus, one of the most significant ancient Egyptian deities, was most often represented in art as a falcon. Seth (Horus' antithesis), frequently appeared as a boar, an antelope or as a crocodile.
Dotted around the perimeter of Lake Turkana in northern Kenya, Africa, ancient petroglyphs depict human figures and animals. After a successful hunt, symbols of the animals that had been caught and consumed were painted on shelter ceilings in white or red pigment. Southern Africa's oldest known clay figures date from 400 to 600 CE and have cylindrical heads with a blend of human and animal features. Artists of the Sao civilisation, which flourished in Central Africa from around the sixth century BCE to as late as the sixteenth century CE, created terracotta figurines of humans and animals. Made by the San people, depictions of animal and human figures remained preserved in the Kalahari desert for over 20,000 years.
The Deer Stones of the Mongols
Mongolia was once the home of the Mongol Empire — the largest contiguous land empire in history. Gaining notoriety in the 13th century under Genghis Khan, the Mongols established a vast Eurasian empire through conquest. Within the Empire, the Mongols maintained a widespread livelihood of mobile, equestrian pastoralism within the Eurasian steppe . Found mostly in Mongolia and in some Central Asian countries, deer stones, unique monoliths of carved granite exhibiting the images of deer and other animal effigies were made between 1000 and 700 BCE.
Often oriented with the decorated face to the east, the designs of deer stones were usually ground or pecked into the granite surface. There are a diverse range of images that appear in deer stones, as well as a multitude of compositional methods. However, reindeer feature prominently in the majority of the monoliths. Early stones have simple renderings of reindeer, while later monuments are more complex in detail and execution. A range of other animal species also appear in various deer stones. Unlike the reindeer, however, these animals are depicted in a more natural style.
The Nazca Lines of Peru
Between 500 BCE and CE 500, the Nazca people began making large-scale marks or incisions in the earth of the Nazca Desert in southern Peru, removing brown, iron-oxide coated pebbles and leaving a yellow-grey subsoil exposed. These cleared lines formed huge geoglyphs, with individual designs measuring between 400 and 1,100 metres.
While most of the geoglyph designs run straight across the landscape, there are also figurative depictions of animals and plants. Usually made from one continuous line, zoomorphic figures like the hummingbird, fish, condor, monkey, dog and cat have remained preserved in the dry, windless landscape, rediscovered from the air by Peruvian military and civilian pilots some 2000 years later.
Ancient Greece and Rome
From vase paintings to the decoration of architecture and gardens, ancient Greek art is replete with depictions of animals. Animal figurines made primarily of bronze are a frequent find at early Greek sanctuaries like Olympia. During the Protogeometric period and the Geometric period, finely painted pottery was decorated with silhouetted figures of humans and animals. The so-called Wild Goat Style, produced in the east of Greece between c. 650 to 550 BCE owes its name to the predominant motif found on vases made during this time. The dolphin, which featured strongly in myth, was a common feature in Greek pottery and coins and has since become the symbol of Greece. Dogs were also often seen on Greek reliefs and ceramics, representing fidelity and given as gifts among lovers .
Prized as vehicles of sport and warfare, both Greek and Roman artists sought to characterize the horse as an indomitable spirit worthy of glorification. Effigies of significant Roman figures were often seated on the back of a noble horse. As one of the most frequently depicted motifs on Roman artefacts, equine likenesses can be found on everything from coins to tableware, jewellery, monuments and tombstones.
Owing to their central role in daily life as guards and hunting dogs, there is an extensive amount of canine subjects featured in Roman art too. Several famous mosaics from Roman Pompeii depict effigies of dogs paired with the classic warning cave canem (beware of the dog). In contrast, cats were less popular in art, though a mosaic from the House of the Faun - one of the larger houses in Pompeii - depicts a spotted cat with a raised paw peering up at several birds perched around a birdbath.
China, Japan and India
In China, animals were among the first motifs to be painted on ceramics . Deer and fish have been found on Chinese pottery dated to the fourth century BCE. Artists of the Shang dynasty often made three-legged cauldrons outfitted with legs formed into animal effigies. By the Han dynasty, both domesticated animals and wild creatures had become an established feature in the Chinese artistic lexicon. Detailed paintings of lone dogs and cats were popular from the Song dynasty onwards.
Artworks representing animals span the full breadth of Japanese artistic output. Lacquer work, ceramics, textiles, sculpture, painting, woodblock printing and metalwork were all exploited to depict both religious and secular perspectives of the animal kingdom. Early haniwa, ancient clay sculptures that were placed around gravesites, were barrel-shaped cylinders used to mark the borders of burial grounds. The artefacts eventually evolved to encompass the likenesses of animals as well as humans and other objects. In Buddhism, Shinto and Zen artworks depicting animals were commonly given places of prominence in temples and shrines.
In India, the historic representation of animal forms often reflected the stories, metaphors and teachings of Hinduism. Spanning from early Hindu iconography, some iconic deities and demons are paired with animals as companions. Brahma, the Hindu god of creation, is often accompanied by a swan. Shiva, the god of destruction, is attended by Nandi, the divine bull. In one of her most significant aspects, Lakshmi, the goddess of fortune and prosperity, is illustrated alongside elephants. The avian figure Garuda, shown in either a zoomorphic form or in an anthropomorphic manifestation is tasked with carrying Vishnu, a protective god. Karttikeya, the god of war, is depicted atop a peacock mount.
Animal Art in the Middle Ages
Originating in the ancient world and made popular in the Middle Ages, the bestiary or Book of Beasts is an early attempt at a cohesive zoological catalogue. Animals, both real and imagined, were believed to have a significance beyond themselves, each with a divine role articulated by a Medieval Christian god. Therefore, detailed illustrations of earthly creatures within the pages of the bestiary were paired with lessons in morality as well as physical and behavioural observations.
In illuminated manuscripts, intricate animal designs enliven sacred texts. However, outside the church, medieval art reflects many activities involving animals, including depictions of farming and hunting. Some medieval artists illustrated hunting scenes on luxury goods for wealthy clientele while others took the opportunity to document more mundane aspects of everyday life alongside animal species.
Animals featured in Renaissance art frequently appear in paintings as emblems or metaphors. Rich with symbolism, images of animals were sometimes used to expand on the character of the human sitter in a portrait. In Paolo Uccello's The Hunt in the Forest, a panoramic rendering of a night-time hunt may have allegorical associations with romance or marriage, the fleeing target an allegory for an evasive love interest. In aristocratic associations, the raw energy of the hunt could also denote prestige.
In Leonardo da Vinci's Lady with an Ermine, an ermine confirms the sitter as moderate and pure. In his old age, Leonardo made a bestiary in which he noted:
The ermine out of moderation never eats but once a day, and it would rather let itself be captured by hunters than take refuge in a dirty lair, in order not to stain its purity 
The phenomenon of superfetation, where embryos from different menstrual cycles are present in the uterus, results in hares and rabbits being able to give birth seemingly without mating. This caused them to be seen as mascots of virginity. In the Madonna of the Rabbit by Titian, the Virgin Mary is seated with Saint Catherine of Alexandria and a baby Jesus. The stark white rabbit in Mary's left hand symbolizes both virginity and fertility.
Christian iconography of the Renaissance period predominantly reduced snakes to symbols of evil, due to their characterization in the bible. However, other reptiles such as lizards were sometimes associated with rejuvenation and knowledge based on the ability of some species to regrow a severed tail. Also inspired by biblical narratives, Renaissance images of birds like the goldfinch often represented sacrifice, the soul, death and resurrection. They could also represent redemption and healing. The belief that a peacock's flesh never decayed drew artistic associations with immortality and depictions of peacocks served as a reminder of Resurrection and eternal life to Renaissance audiences.
Influenced by Leonardo da Vinci, artists like Albrecht Dürer applied mathematics to art and carefully studied the anatomy of animals, setting new standards for the depiction of non-human species. In Jan van Eyck's famous Arnolfini Portrait, a shaggy little dog stands at the feet of a married couple. While the terrier may be a visual device to indicate loyalty, fidelity, affluence or the desire to have a child, it may well have been included simply for posterity.
Sofonisba Anguissola was a pioneering presence during the late Italian Renaissance. Over her successful art career as a court painter, Anguissola painted numerous animals alongside her subjects. In Portrait of Marquess Massimiliano Stampa, a painting made to commemorate a noble boy's inheritance of title in 1557, Anguissola lightens the formality of the full-length portrait with the inclusion of a sleeping dog. This leavening also occurs in Anguissola's Three Children With Dog, painted in 1590.
Baroque and Rococo
Flourishing in Europe from the early 17th century, the Baroque period saw an exuberant depiction of movement, colour and contrast. The style began in Rome, then quickly spread to France, northern Italy, Spain, Portugal, Austria, southern Germany, and Russia.
By the 17th century, the term animal painter was commonly used to describe an artist who specialized in the portrayal of animals. Frans Snyders, a baroque animal painter, often painted animals in for Peter Paul Rubens. Eugène Delacroix, Jan Brueghel the Younger and Jan Brueghel the Elder are all well-known artists who specialized in painting animals.
Although they saw popularity in their own right, animal painters also had a role to play in the visual representation of scientific history. Seminal in the visual rendering of animal species foreign to Europe, many animal artists depicted unfamiliar creatures by relying on accounts from explorers and works from other artists. The Kongouro from New Holland by Georges Stubbs were among the first Western paintings depicting animals in relatively distant lands.
Baroque artists actively avoided the static serenity of Renaissance paintings, choosing instead to render moments of visual drama. In this way, artists like Jan Brueghel the Elder and Melchior d'Hondecoeter often painted scenes crowded with theatrically posed animal species. But by the 1730s the shadowy tones of the Baroque were succeeded by a more extravagant style. The Rococo movement was visually softer than the Baroque approach, with lighter hues and whimsical domesticated animal portraits. During this time, Marguerite Gerard was famous for her oil paintings of human subjects and their pets and Jean-Baptiste Oudry became particularly well known for his naturalistic pictures of animals.
Animal Art and the Realism Movement
Aspiring to portray realistic scenes with new truthfulness and accuracy, the artists of Realism refused to shy away from depicting subjects that were considered to be collectively unpleasant. In Two Rats, Vincent van Gogh depicts a chary pair of rodents gingerly venturing into the light. The rats lean into each other as they survey the artist warily.
Painted in the November of 1884 in Nuenen, a small municipality some 110 km southeast of Amsterdam, Two Rats was completed in Winter, a time when many other animal subjects would have been scarce. By painting the inquisitive pair, van Gogh demonstrated his consistently resourceful approach, drawing attention to a subject often overlooked or reviled.
French animalière artist Rosa Bonheur is one of the most famous female artists of the Realist movement. Painting depictions of both domesticated and untamed animals, Bonheur regularly visited abattoirs and dissected slaughtered creatures in an attempt to better understand animal anatomy.
To create The Horse Fair, her most famous work, Bonheur attended the horse market in Paris twice weekly for a year and a half from the summer of 1850. To avoid drawing attention to herself at the market, Bonheur also obtained an official document from the Paris police to dress in more masculine clothing. The resulting artwork, with its immersive scale and vigorously kinetic rendering was praised by critics when it was first exhibited at the Paris Salon in May 1853. Now displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the painting remains one of the most mesmeric artworks in the collection.
Art Nouveau, Hokusai and Japonisme
Animals were frequently used as decorative motifs in the Art Nouveau aesthetic. Théophile Alexandre Steinlen was an Art Nouveau painter and printmaker who famously created poster art for Le Chat Noir, a nineteenth-century entertainment venue in the Montmartre district in Paris. One of the best-known poster designs from this period, La tournée du Chat Noir de Rodolphe Salis advertises the tour of The Black Cat show at Le Chat Noir, in 1896. Steinlen included cats in many of his illustrations, publishing a book of his designs in 1898 titled Dessins Sans Paroles Des Chats (Drawings Without Words Of Cats).
From 1603, sakoku (locked country) was enacted in Japan, barring trade and relations between Japanese citizens and other countries. For 214 years, trade and contact between Japanese citizens and foreigners were severely limited. When the policy ended in 1850 and trade began to resume, a movement dubbed Japonisme, swept across several Western European countries, influencing all forms of visual art.
Katsushika Hokusai, a Japanese ukiyo-e artist, painter and printmaker of the Edo period, was known as the leading expert on Chinese painting in Japan. Hokusai's artworks transformed the ukiyo-e from a medium focused largely on portraiture to a much broader style featuring landscapes, plant life and animals. Towards the end of his life, Hokusai began to draw large cats. Between 1842 and 1843 Hokusai painted a shishi lion every day to ward off bad luck. Passing away a year before trade routes in Japan were restored, his last painting featured a tiger traversing an almost imperceptible layer of snowfall. When Hokusai's prints began to reach the Western European shore, the artist's legacy of animal art significantly influenced artists like Pierre Bonnard, whose goofy rendering of a gangly, neckless cat reflected a style that operated on the unusual perspectives ukiyo-e printmakers inspired.
Impressionism and Post-Impressionism
Claude Monet, a pioneer of Impressionism, painted The Turkeys in 1877. His short, dense application of paint cultivates the spectral rendering of a turkey flock in the advancing evening, variegated cloud forms echoing in the feathers of the largely flightless birds. Commissioned by Monet's patron Ernest Horschede, the scene unfolds on Horschede's estate, the Chateau of Rottenburg in Montgeron. The painting is one of four planned decorative panels, each painting intended to represent life at the grounds over four seasons.
As the only American to exhibit with the French impressionists, Mary Cassatt achieved recognition for her paintings and prints in both Europe and the United States. In 1894, Cassatt purchased a Château in the countryside fifty miles northwest of Paris. In the following two years, Cassatt created a small series of oil paintings and prints of figures in boats feeding or observing a fleet of ducks.
Likely inspired in part by Japanese art, Cassatt’s gestural painting technique in Summertime asserts an emphasis on feminine leisure and human curiosity. The ducks, casually nearing the edge of the boat, are almost photographic in composition, observed closely by the two women onboard.
The Post-Impressionist movement split-off from the Impressionists as a reaction against the latter's naturalistic emphasis. While Post-Impressionists inherited the vivid colouring and thick paint applications of the Impressionists, the movement also emphasized abstract and symbolic content, distorting form for greater visual effect and deliberately adopting an unnatural colour pallet. From the scientifically inclined Neo-Impressionism of Georges Seurat to the Symbolism of Paul Gauguin, the stylistic assemblage of art under the umbrella of Post-Impressionism centred on the distinct vision of the artist.
Known as the father of Post-Impressionism, Paul Cézanne painted A Modern Olympia in 1874 as a response to Édouard Manet’s Olympia of 1863. Manet’s Olympia in turn was modelled after the 1538 painting Venus of Urbino by Renaissance painter Titian. While each version is clearly distinct, there are numerous vital consistencies - including the presence of a small animal. In Titian's Venus, a little Papillion dog dozes on the bed at the main subject's feet, likely a symbol of marital fidelity. In Manet's take, the little dog is replaced with a shadowy black cat, a symbol of nocturnal promiscuity. This detail (in conjunction with other symbolic inclusions) confirms the nude female subject as a prostitute, a rendering that drew condemnation from critics and the public.
Ten years later, Paul Cézanne was inspired to tackle a version of Olympia himself, a response he titled A Modern Olympia. His painting, characterized by the thrust of Post-Impressionist gesticulations, sees the infamous black kitty relegated to the floor. Seated but alert, with bristling black fur and a blood-red collar, the cat anchors the delirium of the scene, hearkening back to the provocative feline in Manet's Olympia.
Animals and Early Photography
While an endless cascade of cat and dog images are available online today, the first photograph of a dog is a daguerreotype now held in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Dated 1841–1849 and credited to French photographer Louis-Auguste Bisson, the daguerreotype was made for his surrogate sister, Rosa Bonheur. In terms of feline photography, Harvard University claims that this daguerreotype dating from 1840-1860 is the earliest example of cat photography.
As photography developed, so did the photographic documentation of animals. In 1845, Adolphe Braun photographed one of only five known large-scale prints made from a small collection of negatives. This photograph represents one of the earliest photographic studies of animals not taken by the daguerreotype process. The detailed depiction was a documentation of rural life that Braun may have intended to market to painters as reference material.
As photography developed, so did the photographic documentation of animals. In 1845, Adolphe Braun photographed one of only five known large-scale prints made from a small collection of negatives. The photograph represents one of the earliest photographic studies of animals not taken by the daguerreotype process. The detailed depiction was documentation of rural life that Braun may have intended to market to visual painters as reference material.
Eadweard Muybridge, a pioneer in the photographic study of animal locomotion, used multiple cameras to capture the different stages in an animal's stride. In 1884, the painter Thomas Eakins worked alongside Muybridge to study the usefulness of photography to the painting of human and animal motion. In 1887, Muybridge's photos were published as a massive collotype portfolio, with 781 plates comprising 20,000 of his photographs. The collection, titled Animal Locomotion: an Electro-Photographic Investigation of Connective Phases of Animal Movements remains a valuable resource for artists, animators, and students of animal movement.
Brothers Richard and Cherry Kearton were a pair of British naturalists who together became one of the worlds earliest wildlife photographers. They developed innovative methods to photograph animals in the wild and, in 1895, published the first natural history book to be entirely illustrated by photographs. In 1897, the brothers compiled With Nature and a Camera, a book populated with some 160 photographs. When asked about how the pair photographed birds, Richard Kearton detailed the rigorous lengths involved in executing successful shots;
We lay in wet heather for hours at a stretch, tramped many weary miles in the dark, and spent nights in the open air on lonely islands … we have endured the torturing stings of insects, waited for days and days together for a single picture and been nearly drowned, both literally and figuratively.
Animals in Modern Art
Modernism was a philosophical movement that arose from the fundamental transformation of Western society during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. War, the development of new industrial societies and the rapid growth of cities all shaped the modernist movement. Based on a utopian vision of life and society through the application of forward momentum, modernist art manifested in numerous distinctive art movements that often influenced the perception of animal life existing within an expanding human landscape.
Modernism was also influenced by the progress and application of scientific study. Anguish, an 1878 painting by August Friedrich Albrecht Schenck, depicts a ewe bleating in grief over a dead lamb, encircled by a tightening murder of black crows. As inspiration, Schenck may have drawn from the 1872 book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals by Charles Darwin in which the evolutionary biologist argues that animals possess emotions similar to that of humans, and are therefore not simply designed for human use and consumption.
Developed as an avant-garde style before the start of the First World War, Expressionism explored the world from a subjective perspective of reality distorted to immerse a viewer in a wash of concepts and emotions. Franz Marc, a key figure in the Expressionist movement, painted animal subjects in varying degrees of abstraction. The Steer (The Bull) sees a bull (often depicted in Western art as a model of stubborn thew) rendered in a moment of vulnerable quietude. This is a stark contrast to Marc's later painting Fate of the Animals, a severe, explosively apocalyptic vision that reflected the climate before the outset of the war.
Characterized by simplified forms, flattened subjects, and expressive, non-naturalistic colours, animals were a frequent subject in Expressionism. Seeking to eschew traditional academic styles and find a new model of artistic expression, Wassily Kandinsky and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner both interpreted the animal as a subject of spirit. Edvard Munch, the Norwegian artist of The Scream, was also known for his striking paintings of the dogs he surrounded himself with. Paul Klee, an avid cat lover, painted Cat and Bird in 1928. In the painting, a bird seems to hover over a cat's furrowed brow – manifesting quite literally on the cat's mind. This technique aligns with Klee's desire to "make secret visions visible ".
In the aftermath of World War I, surrealist artists turned to unsettling, often irrational depictions that stemmed from an emphasis on the unconscious mind. Thriving on the element of surprise, surrealists revelled in unexpected juxtapositions littered throughout dream-like compositions. The adoption of the Minotaur as an emblem of the Surrealist movement and the frequently recurring renderings of birds, insects, horses, dogs, cats, fish and elephants often portrayed animals as an embodiment of surrealist themes and a device for cultivating the uncanny. For example, the elephant is a recurring theme in Salvador Dali's artworks, culminating in The Elephants - one of the best-known paintings of the artist's oeuvre.
Marking the beginning of surrealism in Japan, Harue Koga's The Sea first appeared at the 16th Nika Exhibition in 1929. The painting is made up of motives sourced from magazines and postcards and the presence of marine creatures and birds animates the ocean backdrop, warping the reading of the water. In Le Civilisateur (The Civilizer), Rene Magritte's 1944 portrait of his beloved pet Jackie places the Pomeranian-Spitzic before a Doric temple, juxtaposing the dawn-lit mane of the pup against the pinkish marble of the background structure - the cautious vigil of the dog is articulated by the perpetuity of the Greek architecture.
At the age of nine, Picasso's father took him to see a bullfight. Fascinated by the spectacle, Picasso apparently chose the event as the inspiration for his first painting. He revisited the subject in 1934 in a series of works serving as a metaphor for life and death, but also the struggle between nobility and the brutality of humanity. The focus of the painting Dying Bull is the excruciating embodiment of an animal dying alone in an amphitheatre.
Mexican painter Frida Kahlo drew inspiration from the many pets she kept over her lifetime. Of her 143 paintings, 55 are self-portraits that feature animals as symbolic vessels of physiological and psychological pain. Kahlo's menagerie included cats, sparrows, macaws, chickens and an Amazonian parrot named Bonito, as well as parakeets, spider monkeys, a fawn named Granizo, a hairless dog with ancient Aztec ancestry and an eagle named Gertrudis Caca Blanca (Gertrude White Shit).
In Self Portrait With Monkeys Frida portrays herself flanked by a caucus of four primates. Self-Portrait With Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird also sees Kahlo accompanied by a monkey, with the addition of a black cat and a thorn necklace from which a dead hummingbird is suspended. In Mexico, the hummingbird is a symbol of good fortune. A dead one, however, implies that the artist perceives her luck may have come to an end.