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Animal Art: The Search for Animal Beauty in Art

In 19th-century France, the development of animal science profoundly influenced animal art, as a current exhibition in Paris makes clear.

This article originally appeared in the June issue of Art & Antiques Magazine as “Untamed Spirits.”

By Dan Hofstadter

The city of Paris has long been home to dozens and dozens of animal sculptures that crouch or rear in parks and squares, some by the likes of major talents like Antoine Louis Barye or Emmanuel Fremiet. More recently, herbicides and insecticides have been banned from almost all public lawns, meadows, and stands of trees, so that pollinating insect, bat and bird species have multiplied dramatically. Kestrels can be seen swooping about the towers of Notre-Dame, and, if you are lucky, you may even spot a red fox loping back toward the Bois de Vincennes toward daybreak.

This renewed interest in biodiversity probably explains, at least to some degree, the Grand Palais’ decision to mount an exhibition of animal art. The show, titled “Beauté Animale” (on view through July 16), is largely the brainchild of Emmanuelle Héran, a curator at the museum, who has also contributed many of the erudite and informative essays in the lavishly illustrated catalogue. Assembled are paintings, drawings and sculptures from all over western Europe, with rooms devoted to the animal picture as a scientific endeavor; to the discovery of exotic species’ to historic quadruped stars, such as the Clara the rhinoceros and Zarafa the giraffe; to companion animals like the dog, the cat and the monkey; and to our peculiar biases about animal aesthetics. If the proven thoroughbreds of the genre animalier—Oudry, Stubbs, Delacroix and Rosa Bonheur—are all under-represented, visitors may actually count that a blessing, since many less-known but gifted artists make a splendidly furry—or feathery—showing.

Most of them are represented by only one or two works. Here viewers will discover a subtly colored horizontal Goya of two cats snarling at each other on a rooftop, a motif that seems to presage the Prado’s “black” mural from Goya’s villa, the Quinta del Sordo, of two men cudgeling each other. They will find a vigorous big Barye sculpture of a tiger attacking a gavial. And, among the limited but provocative selection of contemporary pieces, they will find the highly accomplished and slyly humorous Octo (2011), by the Belgian Johan Creten. This large bronze, which depicts a devil-fish-like monster rising from a superbly conceived plinth, harks back to the late 19th-century enthusiasm for undersea forms.

The theme at the Grand Palais is the animal as subject, not as accessory; there are no people in any of these works. The viewer is confronted, as he peruses this selection, by the search for animal beauty as it has been undertaken since the Renaissance, that is, since the rediscovery of naturalistic depiction. There is scarcely any curatorial attempt to distinguish between the discovery of a way to capture animal beauty and the struggle for a beautiful way to capture the look of animals, which are not after all identical—that you can make a very dull picture of a very fine beast is amply illustrated here by Sir Edwin Landseer’s stag rearing its “noble” head in the hills of Northumberland. And as Héran points out, the issue of animal beauty is bedeviled as well by the human creation of standards for breeds, so that we may wonder whether our domestic animals do not mirror a purely human conception of beauty, and one as capricious as our changeable fashions in human body types and hairstyles. The very word “noble,” so frequently applied to animals, is itself a giveaway—“noble” animals are bearers of anthropomorphized aristocratic traits associated with physical courage, war, hunting and, by extension, an upright carriage.

So it is that as the animal increasingly becomes an artistic subject unto itself, the art itself tends to become less genuinely artistic. The society dame wants a portrait of her pooch; pedestrian illustrations of thoroughbreds are commissioned for a snazzy volume to be published by the jockey club of such-and-such a city. Small wonder then that the least beautiful and least realistic—indeed, most misshapen—animal in this show pops up in one of the most artful paintings, Bonnard’s The White Cat (1894), , whose creator, instead of flaunting his anatomical chops or trying to cleverly capture movement, has simply reimagined the whole creature from the inside out and given us the eternal essence of Matou, eyes tight shut, stretching himself.

But the study of animals has many man-traps, and there is one here, too. Domestic animals have been bred so thoroughly in the image of what people need or fancy that they are difficult to dissociate from their masters. The borzoi, for instance, was long an exclusive possession and insignia of the Romanov family, so much so that it is apparently believed in France, mistakenly, that the borzoi was massacred to extinction after the1917 Revolution. To represent a pet, or a work-, pack-, or farm-animal alone, away from man or its fellow creatures, is to portray it in a condition where it doesn’t show its natural emotions. The beasts that surround us love company; that’s one reason we have them around us. It is true that unlike Jacopo Bassano, that connoisseur of the Ark, whose Two Dogs Tied to a Stump (1548), recently acquired by the Louvre, figures in this show, neither Velázquez nor Van Dyck ever executed a canine portrait. But the Bassano, with its touching psychological sensitivity, is a rarity. Velázquez and Van Dyck’s fond, upward-craning hounds, shown beside their masters, often reveal more emotion than do later, posed individual dogs, though what they reveal, as any trainer might point out, is loyalty and obedience rather than any independent emotion. François André Vincent’s Portrait of Diane, Little Italian Greyhound of Bergeret de Grandcourt (1774), aside from being a deft and advanced piece of painting for the period—who could resist that delicate tawny head cutting across the sweeping fabric that bisects the composition?—sidesteps these pitfalls. But how does it do so, one wonders? One stares and stares at the picture. The slim creature is recumbent, yet listening; her ears are slightly extended, her limbs folded under her, her tail wrapped protectively around a hind leg, itself drawn up against her thorax; her entire frame exudes a nervous alertness, a feminine tone of vulnerability.

The publication, in 1859, of Darwin’s Origin of Species has tended to obscure, for us English-speaking people, the long and fascinating story of the development in France of the science of animal behavior and psychology. Because artists were needed to illustrate zoological manuals, and because, conversely, artists themselves wanted training in animal anatomy and dissection, art and science became intertwined in 18th-century Paris, as evidenced by the searching anatomical studies and the tinted plaster cast of a horse’s rear leg on display here. At the theoretical level, the conflicts were vehement, ignited by a new spirit of intellectual freedom favored by the Enlightenment, whose partisans encouraged laboratory experiments and the publication of scientific papers and speculative essays Philosophes like Condorcet and the chemist and naturalist Réaumur attacked Descartes’ long-accepted doctrine that animals were essentially automatons, with no mental capacity. The people of the Enlightenment tended to think, mostly on the evidence of animal behavior, that mammals, and perhaps other creatures, suffered, had brains constituted rather like ours, and perhaps even had a superior moral fiber—the “loyal” elephant, pictured in one notable engraving as copulating with his mate in the missionary position, was held up as a particularly stoic and monogamous creature. In painting – in the work of Oudry, for example, animals lost their traditional emblematic role and began to appear as active subjects with an independent psycho-social existence.

In the early 19th century, following the conversion of the Jardin des Plantes, the royal botanical garden on the Left Bank, beside the Seine, into a major institution for the study of the life sciences, the battleground shifted to questions of species classification, morphology and, above all, the so-called “fixity” of species versus the idea that they had changed, arguably through the inheritance of acquired characteristics. For a while the champions of the two positions were Georges Cuvier, the great pioneer of comparative anatomy, who upheld the general uniformity of species over time, and Etienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, who leaned toward the idea of species transformation. (In 1827 Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire stepped off the boat in Marseilles with a very svelte and refined lady giraffe, sometimes known as Zarafa, the gift of Muhammad Ali of Egypt to Charles X of France. She is featured here in four adoring illustrations). The least one can say was that the fight was dirty, as indeed a true academic fight must be when the stakes are the sum of human knowledge, the betterment of mankind and the future glory of the nation.

Their quarrels have been mostly forgotten, but the frame of mind or scientific mood of this period had a huge effect upon artists. It many seem strange to us now, but most people who believed that species had changed over eons of time also believed that many had degenerated into lower forms. The degeneracy of species was a common idea in the 19th century—in early anthropology as well as zoology—and it accounted very largely for canons of animal beauty and ugliness.

In the cemetery of Père Lachaise, in Paris, there is, at the top of a long flight of stone steps, a small tomb surmounted by a bronze sculpture of a curiously recumbent man, not “noble,” not muscular—not exhibiting any of the standard visual bombast of funerary art—who wears a nightgown and a cavalryman’s cap and is painting an unseen picture. It is hard for anyone who loves the work of Théodore Géricault not to be saddened by this evocation of the dying genius, so vividly described in the Journal of Eugène Delacroix. Géricault was not only a draftsman and painter but also an agile equestrian and a lover of horses, and his death, probably from tuberculosis, was hastened by a terrible fall from a horse. If there is any culminating moment in the implicit story told by the “Beauté Animale” show, it is in the four works by Géricault gathered here. They gleam with a centaur-like physical skill and wisdom, but they also embody that precise moment when science and empathy and fellow-feeling flood the Parisian salons with the awareness that animals and people are in some mysterious way extraordinarily close. (The explanation, of course, would have to wait for Charles Darwin.)

Géricault, though trained as a painter of horses, was not, as far as we know, an adherent of any of the major zoological doctrines of the period. But his artistic debut in Paris, around 1810, coincided almost exactly with Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire’s promotion to the faculty of sciences at the Jardin des Plantes. The painter, clearly aware of the rising passion for comparative anatomy in learned circles and the need for accurate images of equine musculature among army veterinarians, set out toward 1815 to execute an artistic anatomy of the horse, à la George Stubbs, who had contributed one in the 1750s. A lone sheet is on display here, and it almost makes you wish that the artist had been placed under lifetime house arrest in the dissection theater at the Jardin. Everything in this large composition—the elegant yet natural handwriting of the legends, the intimate sympathy between the handwriting and the drawing, the relaxed legato flow of the black contours, the almost living pulsation of the red-chalk muscles, which ripple like waves from origin to insertion—all these elements contribute to a work that is at once informative and passionately expressive. But that is only the beginning.

Relentlessly hounded by the “black dog” of melancholy, Géricault pursued a personal life characterized by what the French call un grand désordre, especially if, in the category of désordre, we may count getting your favorite aunt pregnant. After decamping to Rome in 1816 and painting the Barberi horse races—then among the most splendid examples of animal abuse found on the planet—he absorbed a good deal of Baroque painting practice, to which he added an obsession with morbid subject matter and a kind of high-contrast illumination scarcely seen earlier. This show boasts a pen drawing by Rubens, Study of Lions and Lionesses (circa 1612), one of the Flemish master’s greatest, that foretells Géricault’s manner in its capture of movement, sinuosity of line, use of cast shadow to define form and exploitation of reflected light. As a modeler of the equine figure, however, Géricault soon became preoccupied with turning forms around into black shadows, which are often counterpointed by highlights that reach into pure whites suggestive of sudden bursts of lightning. The animals shown here—Grey Horse (1812), and Horse Startled by a Storm (circa 1813–14), alarmed by tempests, snorting with fear, look ahead to the portraits of the mentally ill that Géricault painted about 1822, thanks to his connection with the pioneering psychiatrist Dr. Etienne-Jean Georget, at the Hôpital de la Salpêtrière. The Louvre’s Head of a White Horse (before 1816) made a wonderful high point for this exhibition—surely, with its overheated Romantic lighting and delicate exploration of the tightened muscles of the brow and nostrils, this is the most penetrating psychological portrait of an animal ever executed.

A short walk to the Louvre would remind viewers that in Géricault’s masterpiece, The Raft of the Medusa (1818), the sailor who is attempting to save the remnant of humanity by signaling a distant ship is a black man. Slavery was abolished in all French possessions in 1794 but lingered on until it was banned more rigorously in 1848, during the Second Republic. Yet already by Géricault’s day it had become troublingly apparent that whatever differences might exist between human slavery and the exploitation of animals, the arguments enlisted in their defense—“these beings were created to serve us, and they don’t really suffer”—were troublingly identical.

The exhibition at the Grand Palais makes much, with a wall text, of the Loi Grammont of 1850, which forbade public cruelty to animals. Nearby is a touchingly sensitive bronze statue by Emmanuel Fremiet of a Wounded Dog (1849) attempting to lick its bandaged right front leg. But the show’s final section, devoted to the “Triumph of the Animal,” means to draw our attention merely to the pain that these creatures have managed to create in our consciousness, not to any actual triumph on their part. France, unlike the United States, signed the Kyoto Protocol of 1997, aimed at reducing global warming, and the French are generally far more aware of the mounting dangers to biodiversity than we are. But it is one thing to be aware of such dangers, or to remind us, as this beautiful show does, of man’s intrinsic love of animals; it is quite another to take the measures needed to protect them, which promise, everywhere, to be some time in coming.

Author: Art & Antiques Magazine | Publish Date: June 2012

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