Since the very dawn of mankind’s artistic endeavours, animals have been there, alongside us, ever present, front-and-centre, and decorating our favourite objects and places. Here we’d like to trace the history of animalia and animals in art, from pre-history to the present, in a selection of our favourite 15 objects and artworks.
To share works both famous and forgotten, pieces both sculptural and painted, objects both decorative and artistic, we’ve chosen as varied and all-encompassing a list as we could. Works range from the world’s most famous oil-paintings, to gems from ancient history; from legendary Chinese art to contemporary sculpture, and each masterpiece captures in its own unique way why animals have proven so popular to artists over the centuries, and what they bring to the painter’s canvas that nothing else could.
So read on to discover our selection. Some you will know, others you might only have seen in passing, but every single piece of art history shown has at its core the character, quirkiness, grandeur, spirit, or symbolism, of one animal or another, and each demonstrates how bereft our art would be without our animal companions.
1. The Lascaux Cave Paintings, France, c.15,000 BC
On September 12th 1940, 18-year old Marcel Ravidat and, (quite-fittingly!), his dog, discovered the entrance of the Lascaux cave system, near Montignac, Dordogne, in South-Western France. Returning later with friends, and the archaeologist Abbé Breuil, they discovered some of the most outstanding cave paintings in the world, dating to the Upper Palaeolithic period, some 17,000 years ago.
In a magnificent series of rooms and chambers, the most famous of which is the Hall of the Bulls (see photo above), nearly 6,000 figures are shown, including a vast array of animals that were native to the region at the time, approximately 600 of which are animals that can be identified.
The exact purpose of the images is not known, but what the caves do attest to is that animals have been there, in our art, from the very beginning, and that the very first-time man picked up the tools to create art, it was the wild beasts and creatures around him that he took for his subject.
2. The Gayer-Anderson Cat, Egyptian, c.600 BC
Sliding from the prehistoric to the ancient, our second piece comes from the world of Ancient Egypt, in the form of this magnificent bronze cat, made c. 600 BC. With a towering civilisation that lasted for millennia, the Egyptians achieved a level of sophistication and artistic creativity that had never previously existed, and front-and-centre in their art were animals.
Known as the ‘Gayer-Anderson Cat,’ this delightful sculpture can be found in the British Museum’s Room 4, alongside towering spectacles such as the busts of Ramesses II and Amenhotep III, and the world-famous Rosetta Stone. It dates to the Late Period of Ancient Egypt and was cast using the lost-wax technique. Cats were divine symbols in Egypt, magical creatures that brought good fortune to their owners, and as such they honoured them in their art, even mummifying them when they died, and dressing them with jewels fit for royalty.
This sculpture is one of the most grand animal depictions to survive from antiquity, featuring gold ornaments and rings, and a scarab beetle on its head and another on its chest. It would have held precious stone or glass eyes, which have since been lost.
3. The Basse-Yutz Flagons, Celtic, c.450 BC
Staying with the British Museum’s collection, we travel now to ancient Britain, with these exquisite drinking vessels - featuring a variety of animals within their design - and which can be found in Room 50, alongside other masterpieces from the Celtic world. ‘Flagons,’ or in Greek, oinochoe, these beautiful wine-decanters imitate Etruscan examples from Italy, and comprise a host of stylistic influences, from Celtic to Roman and Greek, Egyptian, and even further afield.
They featured in the former museum director Neil MacGregor’s acclaimed History of the World in 100 Objects, and the Radio 4 series of the same name, and it isn’t hard to see why. Made in Eastern France, they are formed of a copper alloy and are inlaid with red coral – now faded to white – from the Mediterranean, and red glass from Asia Minor.
The flagons are crafted with beautiful oriental style handles in the form of dogs or wolves, and smaller dogs on either side of the cover. However, the unique charm of these pieces comes from the ducks that sit at the end of each spout. This wonderful addition brings the vessels to life, and when the flagons were used the effect would have been that the ducks appear to be swimming down a river of red wine into your glass.
4. ‘Five-Oxen’, by Han Huang, Chinese, c.750
This wonderful masterpiece, one of the oldest works of art in China, depicts a set of five oxen in the traditional Chinese ink-line drawing technique, and is the only surviving work of the legendary painter Han Huang. Shown here as used for a stamp in March 2021, it is the earliest extant painting on paper in China, and one of the most important works of art in the nation’s history.
Held in the collection of the Palace Museum in Beijing, the painting is part of a handscroll approximately 20 x 140cm, and has long been attributed to Han Huang, who had a rich political career at the time of the Tang Dynasty, but is best known today as an important artist and the hand behind this important, unique, and delightful ink and colour painting.
Originally a figure painter working in the tradition of leading calligraphers and Classical Chinese artists, Huang distinguished himself with a remarkable oeuvre of pastoral and agricultural works, often depicting livestock, at a time when art was all about figures and landscapes and flowers. Appealing to the natural world, he used animals to add a magic, a charm, and a unique appeal to his work that had a profound impact on the course of Chinese art.
5. The Double-Headed Serpent, Aztec, c.1500
Returning to the collection in the British Museum once more, our next choice is this magnificent Aztec sculpture of a double-headed serpent, made from cedar wood and turquoise, and dating to c.1500. The most famous of the nine turquoise mosaic sculptures in the British Museum, and one of the collection’s most striking works, it depicts an undulating serpent with twin heads, measuring approximately 20 x 43cm.
The serpent features prominently in the religion and imagery of the Aztec world. The two heads of this piece might represent the earth and the underworld, while the serpent more generally was a symbol of rebirth and resurrection, due to the way it sheds its skin and is reborn, and many Aztec gods had serpentine characteristics, including Quetzalcoatl, the feathered-serpent deity.
Turquoise was a particularly valuable material to the Aztecs, and to the Miztecs whom the Aztecs conquered. The combination of a symbolic mythical creature and precious stone, prominent in religious festivals and art, makes this beautiful object all the more compelling.
6. 'Lady with an Ermine', by Leonardo da Vinci, Italian, 1489-91
We come at last to the realm of European painting, with this world-famous work by Renaissance master Leonardo da Vinci. One of his few surviving portraits, this work is the favourite of many an art-lover and is the most prized artwork in all of Poland, where it hangs with pride of place in the Czartoryski Museum in Kraków.
Known as ‘Lady with an Ermine’, it depicts Cecilia Gallerani, mistress of Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan, da Vinci’s employer at the time. She is shown in three-quarter profile, a pioneering technique from Leonardo, and to put it mildly, the exceptional detail and skill with which her beautiful complexion and dress are depicted, against the dark background, is simply exquisite.
What makes this portrait so memorable, and what gives it its immortal status is the ermine, the white ferret-like creature that sits in her arms. Larger by far than an actual ermine, it functions as a semi-mythical creature, a symbol of purity and moderation. It also suggests that Cecilia was pregnant at the time of the painting, as she was, as the ermine is also a protector of women bearing children in Classical mythology. Either way, Leonardo created a work of unrivalled beauty and of mythical prestige.
7. 'The Young-Hare', Albrecht Dürer, German, 1502
From the Italian Renaissance to the German, the next work on our list is this delightful miniature by Albrecht Durer.
Durer was an artist of immense importance and influence, proficient as a painter, theorist, engraver, and printmaker. In fact, he is best known for his engravings – his preferred medium in his later career – but nevertheless his skills as a painter and draftsman are unmatched by his contemporaries.
This charming work has remained as popular as ever due to the almost photographic realism of the hare, as shown above. The fur is a particular highlight, built in a multitude of layers of water and bodycolour, and illuminated from the left-hand side, lighting up the whiskers and eyes.
8. Reptilian oval-plate, Bernard Palissy, French, c.1550
No one work can do justice to this artist’s importance in full, but he certainly deserves a place on this list. A potter, craftsman, ceramicist and engineer, Bernard Palissy was a leading artist of the French Renaissance (c.1510-1589), and one of its most innovative and widely talented figures.
The work shown is an oval still-life plate, dating to c.1550, crafted in earthenware and coloured glazes, that depicts a variety of reptiles among plants and shells, and is displayed in the V&A Museum in London.
Best known to those with an interest in the decorative arts, Palissy is celebrated for his charming so-called ‘rusticware,’ ceramic pieces cast in high relief and with exquisite detail, that was often achieved by actually taking casts of deceased specimens and translating them straight onto his wares, as with the lizards and small fish on the piece shown.
Numerous imitators of his work were active as late as the mid-19th century, particularly amongst Portuguese craftsmen working in majolica; their works collectively known as ‘Palissyware’. Palissy also made numerous contributions to natural history and science – an underappreciated Renaissance man, worthy of high recognition.
9. 'Whistlejacket', George Stubbs, English, c.1762
An animal – and nothing else – is the subject of this next piece, one of the nation’s favourite artworks, and one of the most popular paintings in the National Gallery, London. By the English painter George Stubbs, ‘Whistlejacket’ depicts the Arabian steed of the same name, rearing up against a plain, monotone background.
From where it hangs, at the end of the long enfilade that stretches the width of the gallery, it can be seen right across the gallery as soon as one turns the steps at the top of new entrance in the Sainsbury Wing. Unlike other portraits where the horse is shown in a similar pose, in this work by Stubbs, an equine artist, the steed is the sole focus, all his blemishes and imperfections are carefully rendered, and his magnificent, untamed spirit is on full display.
The heroic scale and sheer vast size of the canvas used, 2.5 x 3m, help lend this painting a legendary status. Alongside masterpieces by Turner and Constable, and national favourites such as the Hay Wain and Fighting Temeraire, Whistlejacket is likely to command the gaze and admiration of viewers for many years to come.
10. 'The Scapegoat', William Holman-Hunt, English 1854-6
Our next work, also by a leading English artist, depicts another solitary animal, yet without the heroic grandeur of Whistlejacket, in a significantly more pensive, tragic, and thoughtful manner. By the leading Pre-Raphaelite artist William Holman Hunt - also known for works such as The Light of the World - he painted a number of beautiful paintings of scenes from Arthurian legend and the Bible, such as this piece.
Taken from the Book of Leviticus, it depicts the Scapegoat, the animal whose horns would be wrapped with a red-cloth, symbolising the sins of the community, and driven off into the wilderness on the Day of Atonement.
More than just a sacrifice required as an act of ritual cleansing for the community, Holman Hunt saw in the Scapegoat a prototype of Christ, dying for the world to save it from sin. In this way, despite its old, haggard, pitiful condition, the goat has a beauty, appeal, and heroic quality about it, making this painting of a poor old beast in front of a godforsaken wasteland on the shores of the Dead Sea perhaps the most captivating and powerful image on this list.
11. The Trafalgar Square Lions, Sir Edwin Landseer, English, 1867
The magnificent lions in Trafalgar Square, London, are by another artist dating from around the time of the English Pre-Raphaelites, but who was more of an established Victorian name: the great Sir Edwin Landseer.
Sir Edwin is celebrated as a great sculptor of animals - with these four lions being his most famous and prominent sculptural works - yet he was also renowned as a painter of animals, exemplified in the majestic Monarch of the Glen, 1851, which shows a magnificent stag in the Scottish highlands.
Work on the monumental lions was far from plain sailing, however, and progress was marred by conflicts with other contracts, and ill-health. There was even an expectation that the lions would rear up and stand tall, rather than relax as they do. The great beasts were eventually finished, and ever since have come to be widely loved and admired, as they stand guard beneath Nelson’s column.
12. The Peacock Room, James McNeill Whistler & Thomas Jeckell, American, 1877
Our next work, The Peacock Room, is a curious and unique piece of art, interior design, and decorative history. Designed by the artists James McNeill Whistler & Thomas Jeckell, the leading American painter, and English architect respectively, it was made for 49 Prince’s Gate in Kensington London - a property owned by the shipping magnate Frederick Leyland - and is considered a masterpiece of the Aesthetic movement and the Anglo-Japanese style.
The room is so called for the beautiful gold-leaf and oil-on-canvas images of peacocks that decorate the end of the room, as shown above; with peacocks being the preeminant icon of the Aesthetic movement. The room also features a collection of beautiful antique objects, including Chinese Kangxi and Qing dynasty porcelain, walnut dressers, and incorporates elements of English Tudor and Japanese-style interior design.
Also in situ is the painting The Princess from the Land of Porcelain by Whistler himself. So beautiful, and so important was the room considered, that it was dismantled and reassembled in its entirety in the Freer Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., by Charles Lang Freer, who first purchased the painting before deciding the whole room would have to come with it, and good thing he did too!
13. ‘The Hare with Amber Eyes', Japanese Netsuke, c.1880
This delightful object, a magnificent example of a Japanese Netsuke, ties in to a powerful and moving literary story which helps make this choice one of our personal favourites of animals in art.
Netsuke are fine miniature sculptures, often made in ivory or boxwood, which could be anything from button-fasteners for kosodes and kimonos, their original form, to exceptional artistic pieces of craftsmanship. They often depicted animals, such as eagles, deer, and small mammals like this friendly hare.
The work shown above, from which the book takes its title, is by the Japanese artist Masatoshi. It is carved from ivory and amber buffalo horn, and depicts with supreme quality and detail a tiny hare, only about 4cm tall.
In the biographical tale, The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance, British ceramicist Edmund de Waal tells the story of how his family, a wealthy Jewish family before the Second World War, was able to salvage very little of their property in the aftermath, except for a collection of netsuke.
Both the prize-winning novel, and these exquisite works of art, are well worth a look for anyone not already familiar with the story or the importance of the these wonderful animal sculptures more generally.
14. 'Tiger in a Tropical Storm', or 'Surprised!', Henri Rousseau, French, 1891
Our penultimate listing brings us up to the turn of the twentieth century, and in doing so ushers in modernist styles building on Impressionist art. The work here is a hugely popular depiction of an animal in art, and was painted by the French artist Henri Rousseau.
A post-Impressionist work, with very clear Japanese stylistic influences, this was the first of Rousseau’s jungle works for which he is principally known. Hanging in the National Gallery, London, it shows a tiger ready to pounce – on its prey, possibly a group of explorers – but is suddenly illuminated by a bolt of lightning; by the expression on his face it seems the tiger is the 'Surprised!' party!
The painting wonderfully captures the spirit of the jungle, and depicts a tiger - an animal of unparallel strength and ferocity - in a rather compromising and embarrassing position, distinguishing it from other works of this type by the extra charm and humour Rousseau was able to bring.
15. 'Maman', by Louise Bourgeois, French/American, 1999
All of this brings us to the final and most recent piece on our list from the realm of the contemporary, and for this we chose something particularly impressive, visually striking and memorable, and something profoundly contemplative and original.
Titled ‘Maman,’ the French word for Mother or more closely ‘Mum,’ it is a vast bronze sculpture depicting a mother spider and was displayed originally in the famous turbine hall at the Tate Modern, though is photographed here in front of Lake Zurich, Switzerland.
Although somewhat monstrous and terrifying at first glance, the female French/American artist Louise Bourgeois explained in her own words that it in fact forms a tribute to her mother; the marble eggs settled in the underbelly instead invite us to view it in protective, nurturing, maternal terms: the weaving role of a spider a reference to the tapestry business of her family, of which her mother was the head.
As with all great artworks depicting animals, like da Vinci’s Ermine or Holman Hunt’s Scapegoat, the carefully chosen creature in Maman functions as a profoundly powerful metaphor for something intrinsic to the human condition. At first terrifying, the spider represents the fierce, outwardly dangerous, yet ultimately protective and nurturing force of the artist’s mother, and as such it finishes off our list by exemplifying the true power and appeal of animals in art across the ages.
Mayfair Gallery has its own fantastic collection of Animalia; browse our online collection of animal art and antiques and see them in person in our South Audley Street showroom.