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Our Favourite Animals in Art History
In case you might have noticed that we love them...
Art Stuff 07 Oct 2021

We love animals, and we know you do too. We also love art, and know you do too. So why not combine the both? 

For time immemorial, we have assigned symbolic meanings to different animals, compared ourselves to them, and seen their likeness in the things around us. It’s no wonder that artists have always loved to include animals in their work.

Here are 6 of our favourite depictions of animals in art history – which are your favs that didn’t make the list?

George Stubbs –  Whistle Jacket

Photo via kida

Whistlejacket is painted almost to life-size, and the huge horse rears up on his back legs in front of a plain brown background. Because the background is empty, people have often thought that the painting is unfinished, but the artist almost certainly designed it this way. Stubbs is famous for his paintings of horses and put in as much detail into his pictures of them as most artists would do for portraits of people. 

Leonardo da Vinci – Lady with an Ermine

Photo via sothebys

The sitter for this work is 16-year-old Cecilia Gallerani, the mistress of the Duke of Milan who commissioned this painting. Da Vinci was working for the Duke’s court at the time. The Ermine (a type of weasel) held by Cecilia is larger than it would be IRL, instead  it has been enlarged to emphasise its symbolic qualities. The ermine is known for its white winter coat which has led it to be used as a symbol of purity and self-discipline, qualities the Duke would want associated with his lover. It has also been suggested, however, that the ermine was designed to be a reference to the Duke himself, and the animal may be covering the pregnant belly of Cecilli. 

Damien Hirst – The Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living

Photo via leblow

This sculpture includes the body of a real shark – a tiger shark – floating in a box of formaldehyde. Damien Hirst made the first version of this sculpture in 1991, but after it began to rot, made a new version in 2006. Bit gross? Yeah.

Albrecht Dürer – Young Hare

Photo via wikipedia

Can you believe this watercolour is over 500 years old? At the point of making this piece, taxidermy wasn’t yet in existence, so the artist would have needed to either make many sketches of hares in the wild, draw from a trapped live hare, or possibly a dead one. You can spot the reflection of a window frame in the hare’s eyes, which many take to prove that the animal was living in his studio when the artist was making the work.

Frida Kahlo – Self Portrait with Monkeys

Photo via fridakahlo

It’s thought that the four monkeys in this piece may represent the four students who were loyal to Frida when she had to cease teaching at the School of Painting and Sculpture in Mexico City and hold the lessons in her house. The artist also kept moneys as pets in her home in Coyoacán and they are possibly a symbol for the children she could never have following her horrific bus accident. Monkeys also represented her Mexican heritage, and they had big significance in many South American cultures. Eight of the large self-portraits Kahlo made during her life featured monkeys.

Franz Marc – Bull

Photo via wikiart

This piece is a softer example of Marc’s work – many of his paintings of animals are much sharper and harsher in colour and outline. Bulls rarely portrayed as a peaceful, vulnerable animal, but here we get to see that softer side of an animal we’re more familiar with seeing in the  midst of a violent charge.

Author: Verity Babbs

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