From cave walls to more refined spaces, animal portraits have never gone out of style.
Pet ProjectsThey’ve been loved and tended. They’ve been mollycoddled and dressed in frippery beyond imagination. They’ve even been stuffed and hung on walls. Animals make their way into people’s homes, bringing with them a relationship more akin to a family member than simply a pet. As such, throughout history we’ve honored them in the same manner we do our great aunts and uncles—through the portrait.
As England entered the late 18th century, the popularity of animal portraits grew exponentially. Originally used as advertising venues for livestock, animal paintings were commissioned by wealthy farmers to present their exhibition animals’ pedigrees and size to the literate and illiterate alike. These portraits often portrayed the animals at their best, that is, large. The livestock market then sold animals that were hugely overweight by today’s standards; and were, at times, even exaggerated for selling purposes.
Eventually individuals wanted not only bulls and prize-winning pigs painted, but also their favorite hunting horses or dogs chronicled as well.
“Particularly, people requested portraits of their sporting pets for their multiple homes, especially hunting lodges, which were the man’s home in a way,” explains Victoria Cooke, curator of European Paintings at the New Orleans Museum of Art.
“You would see them in what we call dens,” she says. “And while the portraits weren’t highly regarded, they were extremely popular.” For example, city dwellers with homes in the country wanted portraits of themselves with their agricultural or foxhunting animals, such as horses.
The horse has inspired man since he was a cave dweller and reached true heights of popularity during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Artist George Stubbs (1724-1806) is among the animal portraitists of this Golden Age of British painting and is particularly known for his horse paintings. He painted for both his clients and for anatomy publications, and was acknowledged for his realistic and keenly observational images. Through dissection and examination, Stubbs learned to reproduce the horse’s anatomy so well that the result was the 1766 study, The Anatomy of the Horse. Additionally, naturalists like Sir Joseph Banks sought after his talent for painting the first kangaroo brought to England. Other notable artists in the agricultural and landscape tradition include John Wootton (1682-1764) and James Ward (1769-1859), who catered to the middle and upper classes clients of London, earning a solid living doing domesticated animal portraits, too.
“Dogs had a particular place in the family, and even among lodge owners who had kennels full of dogs, there were favorites,” Cooke says. Occasionally they were painted with what could have been the game the dog could hunt. Other times dogs were used for their allegorical symbol of fidelity, especially in marriage portraits. Today these works are highly collectible and difficult to come by.
Most of the paintings you find in New Orleans are more reflective of the area’s culture. Karen Ashley of European Paintings and Decorative Arts at Neal Auction Company says, “Paintings that are popular in New Orleans are indigenous to the south Louisiana region, for example fish, bird and game.
“American and British sporting prints and equestrian paintings are also popular, and we see more of those than livestock portraiture.”
Regardless, the genre of animal painting continues, ducks or otherwise. For nearly a decade, New Orleans artist Jean Cassels has painted animals from goats to chimps. Known for her animal illustrations and paintings, she attributes her portraits to her personal interest and ongoing requests from friends.
“I have a strong feeling about animals. They have a lot of the same emotions as humans do—fear, jealousy, pain,” she says. But whereas the 18th-century artists sought to portray the animals in their natural settings, Cassels occasionally situates the animals in more human states.
“We seem to only respect things that are familiar to us. When animals are only thought of as in nature, it’s easy to dismiss them. We don’t think of them as living lives. But when you put them in a situation that we are more familiar with, there’s a greater understanding on our part.”
However, she also paints portraits with animals in their normal environment; a scenario Cooke says will continue to be requested.
“Like dogs of the last centuries, our dogs aren’t children, but they do serve a purpose. They have a job and are important to us,” says Cooke.
“Pets aren’t going to outlive us, so we preserve them in paint. While back then it wasn’t necessarily family pets that were painted, but more sporting pets, you can draw the same equation,” Cooke concludes.
Livestock or domesticated, hunters or lapdogs, animal portraits may vary in monetary price, but to the animals owners, each commissioned piece is priceless. •