The representation of animals in art throughout history

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Art has been a powerful tool for conveying ideas, emotions and storytelling since time immemorial. In particular, the representation of animals has played a fundamental role in the history of art, reflecting the symbiotic relationship between humans and nature. Throughout the centuries, animals have been portrayed in different artistic styles and contexts, revealing the evolution of human perception towards them. In this article, we will explore how the representation of animals in art has evolved and how they have influenced culture and society throughout history.

Prehistoric art and animals

The earliest examples of animal art date back to prehistoric art, with cave paintings in caves such as Lascaux in France and Altamira in Spain. These paintings mainly depict animals such as bison, horses and deer, which were fundamental to the survival of early humans, both as food and in terms of spiritual symbolism. The artistic quality and realism of these early works demonstrate the importance that animals had in the daily life of our ancestors.

Interior de la cueva de Lascaux. Pintura rupestre prehistórica. photograph by JoJan, CC BY 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Ancient art and the representation of animals

In ancient art, animals were depicted in various cultures and civilizations, including Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece and Rome. In Egyptian art, animals were symbols of divinities, such as the falcon associated with Horus and the scarab with Khepri. Animals were also used as decorative elements in Mesopotamian art, such as winged lions in Assyrian reliefs and winged bulls in Persian architecture.

In Greek and Roman art, animals were often depicted in mythological scenes, as in the painting of vases and mosaics. A famous example is the Roman mosaic of“Hunting of exotic animals” in the Villa del Casale, in Sicily, which shows a hunt of wild animals such as elephants, tigers and rhinoceroses.

Fondo Antiguo de la Biblioteca de la Universidad de Sevilla from Sevilla, España, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

The Middle Ages and animal symbology

During the Middle Ages, the representation of animals in art was influenced by Christianity and the belief in a hierarchical order of the world created by God. Animals were seen as moral and allegorical symbols, and appeared in manuscript illustrations, sculptures and ecclesiastical art. The medieval bestiary, an illustrated book of real and mythical animals, served as an educational and moralizing tool by attributing human characteristics to animals and linking them to religious teachings.

The Renaissance and naturalism in the depiction of animals

The Renaissance was a period of renewal in art and science, and artists began to study and represent animals in a more realistic and detailed way. Animals were no longer seen only as religious or mythological symbols, but also as subjects of study and admiration for their beauty and anatomy. Artists such as Leonardo da Vinci and Albrecht Dürer conducted scientific studies of animals and captured their observations in their works.

In addition, animals began to appear as protagonists in genre scenes and landscapes, as in the animal paintings of Pieter Bruegel the Elder and the still lifes of Frans Snyders. These works showed the richness and diversity of nature, while expressing the relationship between man and animals in everyday life.

Albrecht Dürer, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Baroque and Rococo art: exoticism and ornamentation

During the Baroque and Rococo periods, animals continued to be depicted in painting and sculpture, often in a context of exoticism and luxury. The increasing exploration and colonization of the world led to the introduction of exotic animals into Europe, which became symbols of status and wealth. Artists such as Peter Paul Rubens and Jean-Baptiste Oudry painted exotic animals such as lions, tigers and tropical birds in dramatic and opulent scenes.

Rococo art, with its emphasis on decoration and ornament, also incorporated animals in its designs, as in the frescoes of François Boucher and the Meissen porcelains. Animals were often depicted in a stylized and elegant manner, reflecting the refined aesthetics of the time.

Paul de Vos, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The 19th century: Romanticism and the representation of animals

Nineteenth-century Romanticism led to a new appreciation of nature and animals, which were depicted with a focus on emotion and imagination. Artists such as Caspar David Friedrich and J.M.W. Turner painted sublime and dramatic landscapes, in which animals appeared as symbols of the wild and untamed.

In genre painting, animals were also represented in rural and genre scenes, as in the works of Rosa Bonheur and John Constable, showing daily life and the relationship between humans and animals in a more intimate and personal context.

Rosa Bonheur (1822—1899)

Modern and contemporary art: new approaches to the representation of animals

Modern and contemporary art has experimented with various approaches to the representation of animals, from the symbolism of Odilon Redon and the expressionism of Franz Marc to the abstraction of Wassily Kandinsky and the surrealism of Salvador Dalí. Animals have been used as metaphors for the human condition, as in the works of Pablo Picasso and Francis Bacon, or as symbols of the relationship between humanity and the environment, as in the sculptures of Louise Bourgeois and Robert Rauschenberg.

In contemporary art, artists such as Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons have addressed issues related to the consumption, exploitation and conservation of animals, using innovative media and techniques to provoke and question cultural attitudes towards them. Other artists, such as Kiki Smith and Walton Ford, have explored themes of mythology, natural history and ecology, highlighting the importance of animals in cultural and environmental narratives.

As art has evolved and technologies have advanced, so have the ways in which animals have been adapted and represented in various artistic disciplines. Anthropomorphism, which attributes human characteristics to animals, has been a popular technique in literature and art since ancient times, as in Aesop’s fables and Jan Brueghel the Elder‘s animal paintings. In the modern era, anthropomorphism has spread to animated films and comic books, with iconic characters such as Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny.

Taxidermy, the art of preserving and mounting stuffed animals, has also been an important form of animal representation in art. Taxidermist artists such as Walter Potter and Damien Hirst have used this technique to create striking works that explore themes of life, death and conservation.

Digital technologies and multimedia art have offered new opportunities to represent animals and explore their relationships with humans. Video art artists such as Bill Viola and Pipilotti Rist have incorporated animal images into their work, while photographers such as Tim Flach and Nick Brandt have captured the beauty and uniqueness of animals in striking and emotive images.

Authors and their works about animals

Throughout history, many artists have focused their work on animals, using different media and styles to capture their essence and explore their relationship with the human world. Some featured artists, illustrators and photographers include:

  • Rosa Bonheur (1822-1899): French painter known for her realistic representations of animals, especially horses and cattle.
  • John James Audubon (1785-1851): American illustrator and naturalist, author of “The Birds of America”, a series of detailed illustrations of North American birds.
  • Beatrix Potter (1866-1943): British writer and illustrator, creator of anthropomorphic characters such as Peter Rabbit and Jemima Puddle-Duck.
  • Henri Rousseau (1844-1910): French painter of naïf style who represented animals in exotic and dreamlike landscapes.
  • Edward Lear (1812-1888): British painter, illustrator and writer, known for his illustrations of animals and his humorous poems and songs.
  • Charles Darwin (1809-1882): British naturalist and geologist who documented and sketched animals on his travels and in his studies on the evolution of species.
  • Tasha Tudor (1915-2008): American illustrator of children’s books who portrayed animals and country life in her delicate watercolors.
  • Tim Flach (b. 1958): British photographer specializing in portraits of animals, both domestic and wild, with a focus on the emotion and personality of the subjects.
  • Nick Brandt (b. 1964): British photographer known for his striking black and white images of animals in Africa, addressing conservation issues and the human impact on wildlife.
  • Robert Bateman (b. 1930): Canadian artist and naturalist whose hyper-realistic paintings of animals and landscapes emphasize the importance of conservation and connection with nature.
  • Joel Sartore (b. 1962): American photographer and National Geographic contributor, known for his“Photo Ark” project, a series of portraits of endangered animals from around the world.
  • James Prosek (b. 1975): American artist, writer and naturalist who focuses on depicting fish, birds and other animals, exploring themes of biodiversity and taxonomy.
  • Alexis Rockman (b. 1962): American painter whose large-scale works explore the intersection between nature, science and culture, addressing themes such as evolution, extinction and climate change.
  • Ronan Bouroullec (b. 1971): French sculptor known for his intricate wire sculptures depicting animals and organic forms, often in motion.
  • Simen Johan (b. 1973): Norwegian-Swedish artist who combines photography and sculpture in his works, creating scenes in which nature and animals appear in surreal and disturbing contexts.
  • Tiffany Bozic (b. 1979): American painter who creates vibrant and detailed paintings of animals and plants, often fusing different species into fantastical and symbolic compositions.
  • George Boorujy (b. 1973): American artist who creates hyper-realistic works in ink and watercolor, depicting North American animals in detailed and emotive scenes.
  • Sophie Ryder (b. 1963): British sculptor who creates hybrid figures of humans and animals, often in bronze, exploring themes of love, spirituality and the connection between species.
  • Juan Travieso (b. 1987): Cuban-American painter who creates vibrant, geometric works depicting endangered animals, addressing conservation issues and the human impact on wildlife.
  • Gregory Colbert (b. 1960): Canadian photographer and filmmaker who creates poetic and cinematic images of animals and humans interacting in harmony, in his project“Ashes and Snow“.
  • Jane Kim (b. 1982): American illustrator and muralist who focuses on depicting birds and other animal species, creating large-scale murals that highlight the importance of conservation and biodiversity.
  • Patrick Cabral (b. 1980): Filipino artist who creates intricate and detailed paper sculptures of endangered animals, using art as a means to raise awareness about conservation and wildlife protection.
  • Sonny (b. 1991): South African street artist whose large-scale work on murals and canvases depicts majestic and colorful animals, with a focus on conservation and wildlife protection.

These contemporary artists have used a variety of techniques and approaches in their work to depict animals and address issues such as conservation, biodiversity and the relationship between humans and animals. His works invite us to contemplate and appreciate the beauty and importance of animals in our world and to take action to protect them and preserve their habitat.

In the field of art and the environment, it is possible to find numerous resources and organizations dedicated to the promotion and support of artists working with themes related to nature and wildlife. Some of these resources include:

  • Artists for Conservation: an international organization that supports artists committed to conservation and promotes art as a tool for environmental education and wildlife protection.
  • The Center for Art + Environment: a research and archival center at the Nevada Museum of Art that explores the relationship between art and the environment through exhibitions, publications and educational programs.
  • The Society of Animal Artists: an international organization dedicated to the promotion and support of artists who specialize in the representation of animals and wildlife in their work.

By exploring the work of these artists and organizations, we can gain a greater understanding and appreciation for the role that art plays in promoting the environmental awareness and the conservation of our ecosystems and animal species. Through their creations, these artists remind us of the importance of protecting and preserving wildlife and their habitats for future generations.

About me

Photographer. Digital artist. Creative director at Creatures United. Zoology student. Emotionally involved in biodiversity loss and climate change.

For as long as I can remember I have been passionate about two things: animals and image creation. Two paths that ended up converging and have led me to do what I do.


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