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.


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

    • I came upon this as I did research for my dissertation into why the popularity or credence of animals as a subject in fine art seemed to tail off following the emergence of modernism. A lot of what I found in textbooks and online seemed to support the evidence for animal art’s decline until the 21st century.

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