Posted on August 01 2019


by Karen McInerney


Thirty thousand years ago, deep in a cave in Southern France, an artist (or a team of them) painted some of the greatest portrayals of animals ever. They include lions, panthers, bears, horses, cows, bulls, hyenas, and owls, and they give us some idea of how our ancestors saw their relationship with their fellow animals, and how this relationship changed over the millennia.

Early humans tended to use animals literally in art rather than as symbols, as they depended on animals as a food source rather than a source of religious or spiritual inspiration. Animals were used as symbols later in history as humans became more civilized and animals were seen as more than food.

 Ancient Egyptians famously used animals to depict deities, often featuring them in works of art with ornate detailing. For instance, the goddess Bastet was typically shown in a cat form in statues and paintings. Bastet was known as a gentle protective goddess — sometimes appearing with the head of a lioness as protection to the king in battle.

Bastet, Egypt 664-322 BC (Musee du Louvre)

Egyptians spared no expense in their animal artwork, often decorating such works with gold and other precious metals. The use of animals in art became less popular as movements such as the Academic took over. However, the nineteenth century saw a resurgence of animals in art as the importance of animals as companions to humans grew considerably.

This coincided with artists’ attempts to show how people lived their day-to-day lives in leisure. French Impressionist Edouard Manet famously used people’s everyday interactions with animals in his work, from horse racing…

The Races at Longchamp, 1864

…to a woman’s bonding with her pet bird…

Woman with Parrot, 1866 / Manet

Some artists such as George Stubbs made their names with their hyper-realistic animal depictions. Widely known as a horse painter, Stubbs could create stunning paintings of a multitude of animals, and he caught the eye of King George IV as a result. The king had Stubbs paint a portrait of his scruffy yet lovable pooch.

A Rough Dog, 1790

The Post Expressionist painter Henri Rousseau, created a mysterious composition of a nude reclining on a sofa in the middle of the jungle. The woman is surrounded by colorful, painstakingly depicted greenery and inhabitants of the jungle, including several wide-eyed lions who gaze at the strange scene or at the viewer.

The Dream, 1910 / Henri Rousseau

The German Expressionist painter Franz Marc considered animals to be on a higher plane. “People with their lack of piety, especially men, never touched my true feelings,” he wrote in 1915, “… but animals with their virginal sense of life awakened all that was good in me.” Animals were the way that Marc expressed his spiritual ideals. Here in Little Yellow Horses from 1912, he uses simplified shapes and symbolic color to express the animalness of his subject. His perception of the color yellow was a “gentle, cheerful and sensual” color, symbolized with femininity and joy.


Others took a Surrealist angle with their animal artwork, as seen in Max Ernst’s The Elephant Celebes, 1921.

Regarded as among the most representative works of art of the 20th century, Picasso’s Guernica, was painted in 1937 and it is a depiction of the German aerial bombing of the Basque town whose name the piece bears. The protagonists of the pyramidal composition are divided into two groups, the first of which is made up of three animals; the bull, the wounded horse and the winged bird that can just be made out in the background on the left. The second group is made up of the human beings, consisting of a dead soldier and a number of women.

Guernica, 1937 / Pablo Picasso

Freda Kahlo’s Self Portrait with Hummingbird necklace depicts a black cat with attitude. This is not a realistic scene but uses symbolic elements to express her feelings. Birds are often symbolic of freedom and life, colorful and usually hovering above flowers. In this painting the hummingbird is black and lifeless. This most likely is a symbol of Freda herself. She endured much pain through her life and this depicts her suffering. The monkey tugging on the necklace is believed to be her husband Rivera — as in the monkey on her back.

Self Portrait with Hummingbird Necklace, 1940 / Frida Kahlo

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