I have painted five “cow portraits” in all, recently. Here they are. I have enjoyed getting to know them as individuals, their long history in art and human society, and especially painting them. I have learnt a lot about their anatomy, especially their curious two-toed feet, or rather “paired hooves”. I have also discovered that cows have “dew claws” (digits that most animals have, including cats and dogs).
I am ready to switch back to landscape/woodland paintings now, after a long break from the trees.
Well, here I go down another wormhole of History/ Art History. This time I have been pondering the place of the humble cow or ox in figurative art in History. It’s such along one I have had to divide it into two parts. It could easily be a book! It’s a very long history which is not surprising as humans have depended on cattle for their survival. Cattle have represented at different times such things as life, wealth, power and even the divine.
Man and cows, ox, oxen, cattle, go back a long, long way. People have been hunting, and more importantly from our point of view, painting bison and wild cattle in Europe for more than 17,000 years. I use the term “people” advisedly, as there is evidence, based on measuring hand prints, that the first figurative artists could have been women. Men may well have hunted these beasts but women would have been very familiar the anatomy of these beasts from cutting up their carcasses for food and clothing.
One of the largest animals in the “Hall of Bulls”, painted on the walls of a the Lascaux, caves in France, is a black bull. He is an incredible 5.2 metres (17 ft) long, making him the largest animal discovered so far in cave art.
There are many representations of cattle in prehistoric art in caves and on rock faces in Spain, India and Africa. Who knows what function these images served. were they meant to exert some sort of magical power over these animals? Were they a sort of prayer, or a pictorial shopping list for the gods?
If, wild cattle were important to prehistoric people, the domesticated version, were even more so. About 10,500 years ago, cattle were domesticated from as few as 80 wild oxen in southeast Turkey. These cattle could now be used for food and clothing but also as a beasts of burden, pulling ploughs and carts. The Ancient Egyptians, who ruled Egypt over 5,000 years ago, used them in agriculture, for food, milk, leather, and also for sacrifice. These animals fulfilled dual practical and spiritual roles (as many animals did in Ancient Egypt).
Cattle for the afterlife
They came to be considered so important that many Egyptian gods were considered to have the form of cattle, notable deities being Hathor, a very popular female god, Ptah (as the Apis Bull), Menthu (as the Bukha bull), and Atum-Ra (as the Mnevis Bull). The cow and bull are repeatedly represented in Egyptian figurative art, 2D and 3D, many bulls were also mummified.
Cattle had dual practical and spiritual role in the other Ancient Mediterranean agrarian societies too. The Egyptians, however, were unusual in honouring the female aspect of the animal through the worship of the goddess Hathor. She one of the most important and popular deities in Ancient Egypt, who personified the principles of love, beauty, music, dance, motherhood and joy.
Bulls were regularly sacrificed on altars in the ancient Greek religion, usually at an outdoor altar with hymn and prayer.
After the introduction of a metal coinage into ancient Greece, this method of exchange was commemorated by stamping the image of an ox on the new money; while the connexion between cattle and coin as symbols of wealth has left its mark on the languages of Europe, as is seen in the Latin word pecunia and the English “pecuniary,” derived from pecus, cattle.
The Greeks seem to have been very impressed by the strength and virility of the bull, worried by it even. I say this because a very famous Greeks/Cretian myth concerns a beautiful white bulls that King Minos cannot bear to have sacrificed, whom he saves only to have his wife also fall in love with the bull and later produce a bull/man hybrid baby, known as the Minotaur.
King Minos later had the Minotaur shut up in the “Labyrinth”, an underground maze, and fed Athenian youths and maidens to him on a regular basis. That was, until Theseus, a prince from Athens, came and killed him and found his way out of the maze with the help of a ball of thread.
The Ancient Minoans also engaged in a spot of bull jumping, presumably before the ritual sacrifice of the animals. Again, this all seems tied up with virility and a conspicuous display of masculinity.
The Ancient Romans also sacrificed bulls for the well being of the people and the state and they are depicted in many bas reliefs.
The bull was also used a decorative motif in the mosaics that decorated the villas of wealthy Romans. Some of these designs show that bulls were also used as sport, in the gladiator’s arena.
There was a sacrificial element to these bloody games but also a punitive one too as “damnatio ad bestias” (damnation to the beasts) was reserved for military traitors, conquered foes, and convicted criminals bound for execution, which included those Christians accused of sedition and treason. This is how early Christian saints, Perpetua and Felicity, were martyred in North Africa. They were sent to the amphitheatre and repeatedly gored and thrown by a bull before they were dispatched by a soldier’s sword.
The bull also inspired an instrument of torture that was also used on early Christains. The brazen bull, bronze bull, or Sicilian bull, was originally designed in ancient Greece. It’s not clear if it really existed or was really good “fake news” made up to frighten people. The life-size bull was said to be made entirely out of bronze, hollow, with a door in one side. The condemned were locked inside the device, and a fire was set under it, heating the metal until the person inside was roasted to death. It was repudely used to kill several early Christians including Saint Eustace, with his wife and children, Saint Antipas and Pelagia of Tarsus.
Interesting, after all this maleness and display of masculinity, bull sacrifice, as taurobolium, also became connected with the worship of the Great Mother of the Gods, Magna Mater, from the mid-2nd century onwards.
Another Roman cult, popular with soldiers, in which a sacrificial bull played a role was that of the 1st–4th century Mithraic Mysteries. In the so-called “tauroctony” artwork of that cult, and which appears in all its temples, the god Mithras is seen to slay a sacrificial bull.
So, after all this blood and violence of the Greco-Romano world, it will probably come as something of a relief that my next post will explore the somewhat gentler world of the cow/bull in Medieval and Modern society and culture. The spiritual/virility/wealth aspect of the cow/bull continues to be explored. However, we are reminded of the continuing violence and brutality meted out towards, the cow/bull in the work of artists of like Picasso and Hirst.
I am delighted to have sold “Koei 1509”, a painting of a South African cow, to a collector in Oxfordshire, England. The painting was based on a photograph by talented photographer Herman von Bon, who generously allowed me to use his image. Herman photographs the South African landscape along with its people and animals. I particular like his wildlife photography.
I like cows. I love all animals. I come from a family of animal lovers. I get pleasure from just looking at animals. I really enjoy painting them but I find it hard to part with my animal paintings.
Cows are the reason why I stopped eating meat a long time ago. When I was a post-graduate student at Cardiff University in the 1990s I spent a day cycling along the the flat marsh road that lies between Cardiff and Newport. It’s about 10 miles. On my way back, I stopped at a gate for a rest. I group of curious youngsters, Fresians, came up to gate to investigate me. They were cautious but seemed to egg each other on to come closer and stick out their noses to me. They amused me. I thought they were funny and sweet.
I stood for quite a while looking at them. Listening to them breathe. Cows have intelligent eyes. Big brown eyes. They weren’t essentially any different from the many animals my family had kept as pets over the years; cats, dogs and rabbits. Suddenly the thought came to me “I eat you and your friends”. I felt awful. Very guilty.
It felt very unnecessary. I don’t need to eat meat. So I decided to stop. I’d been thinking about for for some time. People sometimes ask why I am a vegetarian and I could mention things such as the cruelty of factory farming, the environmental cost but I have never felt comfortable eating sentient creatures. I always felt a hypocrite for eating Sunday roast, no matter how tasty it was.
Many of my university friends were veggies but I didn’t like many vegetables (potatoes and peas was about it for many years) and I wasn’t sure what I would eat. To be honest, I was lazy. I had to learn to cook vegetarian meals. I started with a lot of pesto and pasta. A friend of mine recommended a Rose Elliot cook book and I painstakingly read the recipes (there were no photos in the book) and I eventually learnt a few recipes off by heart. It was a bit of a slog but I felt much better for it, physically and mentally.
Although I don’t think that I paint cows all that often, they have added up over the years. I love Hereford cattle in particular. I was born in that English county and I love the russet red of their coats. You don’t see that many of them on Gower.
I seems to have painted Frisians the most – probably because I like the contrast of their black and white coats.
I never paint “generic” cows. These are all real cows. All individuals. I found Gower Cow on the slopes of Cefn Bryn at the Penmaen end. She was chewing the cud with a small group of friends.
The cow at Pwll Du was also with a group of friends, small herd I suppose, who came out of the undergrowth and started grazing on the grass by the stream at Pwll Du.
Writing this post got me thinking about the History of the cow in Art. There’s a lot to it so I have decided to save that for my next post.
This part two of photo-essay on great artists who have either painted their pets, or other people’s pets as a way of proving that pets are a proper subject for serious artists.
Mexican artist Frida Kahlo had many pets and they frequently appeared in her biographical portraits. In the case of her deer she identified so closely with the creature she painted herself as a hunted deer.
Salvatore Dali had some strange pets and he used them for publicity (hence the anteater in Paris) as much as anything else. I don’t think he cared much for cats (see the amazing photo below) however, some dogs did feature in his surrealist paintings.
I was going to say that fellow Spaniard, Pablo Picasso, clearly did not like cats, either.
However, I suspect, Like many cat owners, he was ambivalent about cats’ hunting skill and their drive to kill, even when they are well fed. Perhaps that was why he was fascinated by a cat’s encounter with a lobster, which he painted several times. However, a number of much less vicious cats, kittens in fact, also appear in his paintings.
If we look at the photographic evidence it seems clear that Picasso clearly liked both cats and dogs. His absolute favourite dog was a Dachshund called, Lump. “Lump had an absolutely pampered life there. Picasso once said, ‘Lump, he’s not a dog, he’s not a little man, he’s somebody else.’ Picasso had many dogs, but Lump was the only one he took in his arms.”
And pampered Lump clearly was. He died ten days before Picasso, on 29 March 1973.
Ammerican pop artist, Andy Warhol was also a fan of dachshunds.
British painter David Hockney is also a massive fan of the short-legged pooches.
British painter, Lucien Freud was famously fond of dogs especially his pair of whippets whom he often painted.
American artist Andrew Wyeth painted a number of beautifully atmospheric paintings of his Labrador-type dog.
Time for some cat lovers, I think. Less well known, is the British artist Ruskin Spear who painted many wonderful pictures of his cats.
Bridgeman; (c) Somerset County Museums Service; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
Another, lesser known British artist, Beryl Cook, painted some fabulously plump cats to go with her full-of-life people.
More cats and a lobster, only this time the lobster is outnumbered.
Chinese artist Ai Weiwei is another cat lover. He lives with about 40 of them in his Beijing home.
Swedish artist Benjamin Björklund paints very beautiful and atmospheric portraits of both humans and animals. He is interested in the emotional states of his subjects, whether they are his members or (his Great Dane), his pet rabbits, mice, rats, and guinea pigs, as well as the wild animals outside.
I’ll end with Jeff Koons. The American artist is known for working with popular culture subjects, and he has also used as dogs as subject matter in his work. “Balloon Dog (Orange)” sold for $58.4 million at Christie’s. ” Possibly, his reproductions of banal objects such as balloon dogs should prove that animals are an uncool subject matter?
And yet “Puppy” his installation of flower-filled a giant West Highland Terrier is pretty awesome. I think that it honestly doesn’t matter what you paint, cats, dogs, cows or people but how you approach your subject that matters.
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