Although I love painting landscapes, whether streetscapes or woodlands, I also like to paint animals. It doesn’t matter what I paint a street or a donkey – I response to colour and light in a subject. Yet, whenever I paint a dog or sparrow I have this sneaking suspicion that serious artists don’t do this. That somehow paintings of animals are frivolous. That by painting a donkey on the beach I am ruining my credibility. So I have put together this photo-essay to challenge the thought that paintings of animals, particularly pets, are not a proper subject for serious art.
The English Victorians loved their animals and children, in that order. They happily sent other people’s (working class) children to work in factories and mines, generously limiting their working day to “only” 10 hours in 1847, but had founded the Royal Society for the Protection of Animals a full two decades earlier. In the late C19th century artists made a good living from painting art featuring animals. Charles Burton Barber specialised in sentimental paintings of children and animals.
Edwin Landseer painter and sculpture was, in many ways still is, the master of the animal painting.
Some of the narrative that underpins his art is probably too sentimental for modern tastes, such as “Old Shepherd’s Chief Mourner” (below) but we are dealing with a society that created the legend of Greyfriars Bobby (updated by Hollywood in 1949 in the Lassie film “Challenge to Lassie“).
The impressionists in France, however, looked at animals with a much less sentimental eye. The Father of impressionism, French artist, Édouard Manet liked to tackle modern and postmodern-life subjects, and several of his contemporary portraits included pets.
In the 1860s Manet painted one of his most controversial paintings, “Olympia” of a prostitute, with her servant and cat. The black cat traditionally symbolized prostitution.
Other impressionist artists like Renoir, Monet and Gauguin also painted every day scenes, which sometimes included the pets that shared their homes and the homes of their friends.
Pierre-Auguste Renoir portraits are bristling with pets, mostly dogs.
Yes, you do recognise that little black and white, pooch. That’s Tama, who was also painted by Manet. Tama was a Japanese spaniel who belonged to his friend Henri Cernuschi, a banker and collector of Asian art.
Claude Monet’s cat
Rosa Bonheur, another French painter and sculpture, was known as painter of animals or “animalière” was known for her artistic realism. Her paintings are very beautiful, although her hounds do look very solemn but not overly sentimental or twee.
Don’t make the mistake of his think that she was “just” an animal artist. Bonheur has been called “the most famous woman painter of her time, perhaps of all time”. She also painted Ploughing in the Nivernais, a truly epic painting (it is massive – 133cm×260cm or 52in×100in) which was first exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1848, and now at Musée d’Orsay in Paris. I stood in front of this painting in 2012 and marveled at her realistic depiction of the mud!
The exception seem to have been, Vincent Van Gogh, who does not seem to have been much interested in pets. He once drew an old lady with her dog and painted a couple of cow paintings.
Henri Matisse was definitely a cat lover.
Finally, I will finish with Welsh artist, Gwen John, who lived in Paris for most of her adult life was a painter of delicate portraits and interior scenes. She loved her cats they frequently featured in her paintings.
The Impressionists’ and Post-impressionists’ treatment of domestic animals and pets in their work showed that a pet dog or cat was considered serious subject that could included in portraits or in portraits of their own. They were part and parcel of Victorian life and their art reflected that. There was plenty of sentimental (English) pet art in the Victorian age but the French Impressions and Post-Impressionists showed that it was how you painted your subject matter that counted. In my next blog I will consider 20th century artists’ treatment of pets and animals in their art.