Where Does Paint Figure in Posthumanist Thinking and the Emerging Field of Critical Animal Studies? (part 2: Animals as a lower genre in art)

Animals as a lower genre in art

It is important to note the changes that occurred in the art world throughout the 20th century, as the abandonment of paint by Duchamp and subsequent climax of modernism contributed to the decline of the animal as a painted subject. Reductionist values, avant-gardism and an overall dismissal of paint as a productive medium were all factors which effectively vanquished the painted representation of non-humans.

Throughout most of the modernist period the subject of animals was overlooked and sometimes even derided as a lower art form.  This denigration of animal painting was owed to an attitude initiated by the Royal Academy of Arts in France that went largely unchallenged for 400 years and culminated in a tendency to avoid representing animals as primary subjects by the mid-20th century. Andre Felibien first discussed a hierarchy of genres in 1667: At the top of the hierarchy was history painting, followed by portraiture, genre painting (that is, scenes from societal life) then landscape painting, animals and finally still life.[1]  In Bailey and Conisbee’s work on French genre painting, Felibien declares:

He who paints landscapes perfectly is above the artist who paints only fruits, flowers or shells.  He who paints living animals is worthy of more esteem than he who only represents things dead and no longer moving.  And since man himself is God’s most perfect work on earth, it is certain that he who imitates God in painting the human figure is far more excellent than all the others.[2]


Although in this quote from Felibien it appears that animal painting was held in high regard, the fact that it was placed low in the Academy’s hierarchy did little to help its status as a serious subject over the following four centuries, which resulted in many painters refraining from using animals in their work for fear of being taken seriously as artists.  More recently Giovanni Aloi is quoted in Animals and Art as saying ‘we are all familiar with the multitude of works featuring animals that have helped define the canon of one of the lower genres in the history of painting’.[3] In addition, artist and animal studies writer Steve Baker asserts that ‘worse still, for much of the twentieth century the animal in art was regarded as the most kitsch of subjects, undeserving of serious attention’.[4]Baker also explains how the anthropomorphic sentiments of the Victorian age disagreed with serious modernist art so that ‘the animal was the first thing to be ruled out of modernism’s bounds…There was no modern animal, no ‘modernist’ animal’.[5]

With such comments, it is not difficult to understand how painting animals suffered for over 100 years of art history (that is, after its peak of popularity with Victorian Romanticists) and was relegated to the practices of wildlife artists and natural history enthusiasts.

[1] Author unknown, ‘Royal Academy Art Hierarchy’ hierarchystructure.com (2012) <http://www.hierarchystructure.com/royal-academy-art-hierarchy/&gt; [Accessed 20th January 2013]

[2] Colin B. Bailey, Philip Conisbee, and Thomas W. Gaehtgens, ed. by Colin B. Bailey, The Age of Watteau, Chardin and Fragonard: Masterpieces of French Genre Painting (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2003) p.4.

[3] Giovanni Aloi, Art and Animals, (London: I.B. Tauris, 2012) p.1. (italics mine)

[4] Steve Baker, ‘Something’s Gone Wrong Again’,  Antennae issue 7, (2008)  <http://www.antennae.org.uk/ANTENNAE%20ISSUE%207.doc.pdf&gt; [Accessed 21st January 2013] (para. 4 of 5)

[5] Steve Baker, The Postmodern Animal (London: Reaktion Books, 2000) p.20.


Where Does Paint Figure in Posthumanist Thinking and the Emerging Field of Critical Animal Studies? (part 1: Introduction and a brief history of animals in art )

circa 22,000BC

Red Cow and First Chinese Horse, Lascaux cave painting, circa 22,000BC

George Stubbs, about 1762

“Whistlejacket”, George Stubbs, about 1762

Thomas Gainsborough, 1777

“Pomeranian Bitch and Puppy” Thomas Gainsborough, 1777

Eugene Delacroix 1855

“The Lion and The Caiman” Eugene Delacroix 1855

William Holman Hunt, 1856

“The Scapegoat” William Holman Hunt, 1856

Sir Edwin Henry Landseer 1839

“Dignity and Impudence” Sir Edwin Henry Landseer 1839

Francois Desportes 1699

“Self-Portrait as a Huntsman”, Francois Desportes 1699

Franz Marc 1913

“Fate of the Animals” Franz Marc 1913

Aelbert Cuyp, 1655-1660

“Young Herdsmen and Cows”, Aelbert Cuyp, 1655-1660

Marc Chagall 1982

“The Painter and the Goat”, Marc Chagall 1982


Jaguars, taken from George Buffon’s “Histoire Naturelle” 1785-91


Jean-Baptiste Oudry 1748

“Boar Hunt”, Jean-Baptiste Oudry 1748

Paulus Potter 1647

“Young Bull”, Paulus Potter 1647

Theodore Gericault, 1820

“Head of a Lion”, Theodore Gericault, 1820

Joseph Wolf, 1861

“Bearded Vultures Attacking an Alpine Ibex”, Joseph Wolf, 1861


As scientific advances and environmental pressures rapidly alter our relationship to the non-human and deconstruct humanist philosophies and values, how is the use of paint in the depiction of animals able to best represent this shift in thought towards other species? Can the use of paint represent animals in a way which is productive in terms of promulgating these changes in attitude, or at the very least decrying the antiquated humanist values behind animal depiction throughout history?

Moreover, who are the painters who would meet the criteria in relation to posthumanist thinking and what are their motives regarding the animal ‘other’?  Although I briefly describe the term posthumanism later in this dissertation, to comprehensively define it is beyond the scope of this essay.  Much of the terminology and theory gathered in regards to the definition appropriated for this discourse is from a handful of writers whose supporting explanations and comments are referenced accordingly.  It is also important to note that this essay does not concern itself with the kinds of questions asked in John Berger’s famous work Why Look at Animals? such as the reasons for our loss of a connection with nature, although the book certainly has a vital context within this discussion.  In addition, this essay is not intended as a defence for the validity of painting in contemporary art practice.

As we progress into the 21st century, it will be argued that painting is enjoying a renaissance as a genre, with a surge of emerging artists utilising the medium in a plethora of styles and with a multitude of subjects.  The intention here is not to value one medium over another in the representation of the non-human, but rather highlight a selection of contemporary artists who are using paint in ways relevant and beneficial to the emerging field of animal studies within posthumanities.

A brief history of animals in art 

The history of the representation of animals in art is unarguably as long as the history of art itself.  The cave paintings of Lascaux and the rock art of the Australian aborigines depicted animals as the first subject and the first medium in art was most likely animal blood and fats, perhaps mixed with pigments. Throughout the ages, at least until the mid-16th century, animals were chiefly used across cultures as motifs, symbols and totems and as vehicles for religious and metaphorical values.  Representing animals accurately in a physiognomic sense can be dated back to Greek Hellenistic art, but with the dawn of the woodcut and mass printing, illustrators in the Middle Ages began to compile imaginative pictures of creatures purported to exist at the edges of the known world, such as those in the Ashmole Bestiary of the 13th century, now held at the Bodleian Libraries of the University of Oxford.

With the Enlightenment, these medieval bestiaries of fantastical beasts and inaccurately described specimens gave way to more concise encyclopedias of a taxonomic and scientific standard by illustrating different species using ink and graphite.  The illustrators aimed to pave the way for a new depiction of non-human species, one they intended to be largely free of symbolism and sentimentalism, as scientists began to categorise and codify the world around them.

Perhaps two of the most important scientists to influence natural history in terms of creating order and eliminating fantasy from animal illustration were Georges-Louis Leclerc De Buffon (1707-1788) and Carolus Linnaeus (1707-1778).  The latter was a Swedish botanist, famous for developing the classification system of plants and animals still in use today, the former a naturalist noted (among other scientific accomplishments) for his Histoire naturelle published in the mid-1700s.  Buffon and his contemporaries produced illustrations and engravings of animals portrayed in a noble and aristocratic style that mirrored the portrait and genre paintings fashionable at the time. The artists strived to show off animals in ways which made them appear ‘clean, neat and innocent’ and clearly recognisable for taxonomical purposes; they were often painted from taxidermied specimens and positioned in unnatural stances to display their bodies and markings.  Like the earlier illustrations of Nicolas Robert (1614-1685), who produced portraits of animals for the French royal family of Louis XIV, the animals were idealised and perfect, with barely a ruffled feather or misplaced hair. Today they would perhaps be considered as mere caricatures of animals.  Buffon was also influenced by Dutch artists such as Aelbert Cuyp (1620-1691) and Paulus Potter (1625-1654), whose hunting and agricultural scenes in oils were commissioned by the wealthy classes at the same time as Robert.  These Dutch painters were following a tradition of painting animals that would continue alongside wildlife illustration until the present day and was at its most popular in western European society during the 18th and 19th centuries.

Where most 18th century animal illustration was designed to impress wealthy clientele with its gaudy, flamboyant and often inaccurate style, at the turn of the 19th century, the work of British illustrator Thomas Berwick had adopted a new approach.  Forsaking the large colourful format, Berwick brought a ‘new insight into animal portraiture’ with a revival in woodcuts and an emphasis on physiognomic accuracy.  After Berwick came John James Audubon and Joseph Wolf in the mid-1800s: two illustrators whose technical skill appealed to prevailing Victorian tastes.  At a time when the British Empire was at its height, their close observation and honest depiction of animals contributed to the collection of specimens in the name of science and taxonomy.

It is important to note the relationship between the two fields (of illustration in the name of science and painting in the name of art), as they informed each other stylistically as well as objectively.  Both were purchased by the wealthy and both were built upon a succession of styles and observations that were simultaneously improved upon and modified according to need.  The application of taxonomy that these artists either advocated or ignored is a contributing factor to the current discourse surrounding the representation of animals and one that may be addressed by heeding contemporary posthumanist views.  This will be covered in greater detail later in this essay, but first a historical context of paintings in relation to taxonomy must be discussed.

In flagrant disregard for the identification systems developed by naturalists of the Enlightenment, many of the illustrators and painters deliberately accentuated redeeming features of their subjects, or embellished the animals with richer colour and decorative effects.  The artists often decided what to include and what to omit according to the tastes of their patrons or the fashions at the time.

Francois Desportes (1661-1743) and Jean-Baptiste Oudry (1686-1755) were two painters who are best noted for their scenes of sporting and the hunt.  Like most other painters of the period who produced hunting scenes, they achieved a visual realism of species that was owed to a proximity to and familiarity with the animals they pursued.  The paintings served as status symbols for the wealthy, reminding them of the nobility and grandeur of the hunt and ultimately of their power and prowess as leaders, land-owners and sportsmen.  Although details such as the physiognomy or colouration were carefully attended to, as well as naturalistic poses both before and after the animals’ death, it was important for the animals to appear more ferocious and impressive than in reality and as a result the animals (or features of) were often exaggerated or over-dramatised.

Towards the end of the 18th century, animal portraiture continued to be popular with the wealthy, as pet ownership became a sign of affluence.  Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788) produced animal portraits, such as those of dogs, for rich patrons. In striving to capture the animals’ character in paint, attention to detail became paramount.  The fashionable practice of painting horses for rich landowners was also prevalent at this time, with exponents such as George Stubbs (1724-1806) leading the way in this oeuvre.  The paintings were a record of their owner’s possessions and triumphs and care was given to imbue the animals with valiant and even individual qualities.  Although Whistlejacket, a painting of the Marquess of Rockingham’s racehorse made in 1762, is considered one of the first paintings to place an animal as the central subject, it is contested by those who believe the portrait was initially going to feature a landscape and rider but that Stubbs was forced to leave the painting unfinished at the request of Rockingham.  Whatever the original intention, the individual character expressed in the equine subject is undeniable. It is with these paintings of domesticated animals that taxonomy is displaced by individuality as a means of achieving accuracy.

Following Stubbs and Gainsborough came other painters during the Romantic era, including Theodore Gericault (1791-1824), William Blake (1757-1827) and Eugene Delacroix (1798-1863), all of whom sought to depict raw animal energy and vitality.  The Romantics sympathised with the savage fierceness of animality and in their paintings they tried to show an admiration of animal beauty and the wild.  Delacroix in particular ‘exposed a new religion of violence’ with regard to animals, painting scenes of carnage between predator and prey with startling realism.  In contrast, Gericault’s animals, such as Head of a Lion (1820) were much gentler and more sentimental and it is this sentimentality that became prevalent in 19th century painting.  Painters like Gustave Courbet (1819-1877) and Sir Edwin Henry Landseer (1802-1873) followed the tradition of animal portraiture for the upper classes, producing realistic images ranging from dying stags in hunting scenes to family lapdogs staring sorrowfully towards the spectator-owner.  In a description of one such painting titled Dignity and Impudence, writer Frances Fowle describes how:

Landseer draws attention to the dogs’ ‘human’ characteristics: the soulful look and gentle dignity of the bloodhound is contrasted with the mischievous expression of the small terrier. Moreover, the larger dog is painted in smooth, variegated textures, while the smaller dog comes to life with a few jabbing and expressive brushstrokes.

This use of paint to stylistically anthropomorphise animals was a popular trend at the time and demonstrates the painters’ tendency to ignore the animals’ true bearing in the world and overlay it with humanist affectations.

Whether consciously or not the artists of the late 19th century were producing such realistic paintings in response to the development of photography; a technological influence on paint that will be explored later.  It was also at this time that the binary of nature-culture was strengthened by the industrial and scientific advances of the Victorian era and both animals and ‘the wild’ receded into the distance and were romanticised.  By the end of the nineteenth century, this sentimentalism in the treatment of painted animals culminated in the work of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, whose excessively romantic imagery featured animals only as narrative references and metaphors, realistic though they were.  William Holman Hunt’s (1827-1910) The Scapegoat painted in 1856 is a good example, portraying a male goat laden with metaphorical and allegorical meaning.  Despite the faithful rendering of its hair and physiognomic accuracy, it is impossible to ignore the desolate surroundings and red crown that implicate the mammal in a deeper religious agenda on the part of the artist.

For over 170 years photography has had a profound effect on the art of the 20th century.  Although many painters, such as Degas, Courbet and Delacroix embraced photography and often even used it to help depict movement or achieve accuracy in their painted animal subjects, it eventually undermined painting’s claim to historical and documentary authority. It is no accident that the development of photography eventually led to a peak followed by a subsequent decline in the realistic representation of animals, both in terms of romantic painting and natural history illustration.  The work of Eadweard Muybridge and his use of photography to investigate the motion of living beings is particularly significant and perhaps places him as the central figure in the history of the reproduced image. In the year 1879, Muybridge successfully documented specific visual information about the locomotion of animals and people.  His work revealed the significance of an accession of images instead of the noteworthiness of a select few and for the first time people could truly understand the way non-human and human anatomy functioned.

Muybridge’s experiments and the rise of photography altered the purpose of the painter.  The understanding and interpretation of the visual world was affected; events (such as motion) could be isolated in static images, scrutinised and reproduced on an unprecedented scale.   As a result, artists produced works which focused on the very qualities early photography did not possess: the play of light, the expressive qualities of paint and the spontaneity of creation, which resulted in the movements of Impressionism and Expressionism that still find popularity today. By concentrating on colour, movement and the gestural, emotive qualities of paint, animals painted after the Romantics became prime vehicles for expression and metaphor.  German Expressionist, Franz Marc (1880-1916) is one of the most famous animal painters, whose paintings depicted the spiritual beauty he found in non-humans.

Other 20th century artists who depicted animals did so as supplements to their oeuvres of genre paintings, still-lifes or portraits, positing the non-human as symbolic accessories to whatever narrative was being constructed in the work and even using animals to represent themselves, such as in the Surrealist paintings of Marc Chagall (1887-1985), where the artist used creatures such as goats or horses to signify his own presence in a picture.  In his article on the artist, Simon Abrahams describes The Painter and the Goat (1982) as a piece in which:

Chagall placed his own figure behind the goat as if to say ‘I am the goat’…One eye of the goat is placed horizontally, flat on the surface, as an eye of the artist often is in self-portraits. The painter’s palette-arm is hidden though one leg of the goat extends straight towards the thumb-hole of the palette as though the goat’s leg and the painter’s thumb are linked.