The History of Animal Portraits

The dog selfies and funny cat videos clogging up your phone aren’t a modern phenomenon but a symptom of the human condition. We can’t help but capture the world around us, whether using cave paintings or iPhones. 

Throughout time animals have appeared as subject matter in paintings, sculptures and prints. The oldest paintings of animals date back to around 19 thousand years ago, when over 600 paintings were found in Lascaux, Southern Frances, located deep inside caves. So the dog selfies and funny cat videos clogging up your phone aren’t a modern phenomenon but a symptom of the human condition. We can’t help but capture the world around us, whether using cave paintings or iPhones. 

However, in the time between cave paintings and Bored Ape Yacht Club, animals' place in the world has changed a lot. Ancient peoples connection to animals was paramount providing food, clothing, tools, shelter etc as well as predators providing competition and danger. Today our relationship with animals is divided and often heavily influenced by culture, however the general theme the world over is that we praise and cherish some animals whilst farming and slaughtering others. Art is the perfect conduit with which to learn about the perceptions, treatment and importance of animals throughout history.

Animals are the bridge between the raw forces of nature and the sentient human experience. We too are animals and are both aware of, and try to escape our animalistic tendencies. Therefore animals have been a source of inspiration for artists time immemorial. 

Animals as Symbols 

Due to our relationship and history with them, animals have become symbolic; all cultures throughout history have regarded specific animals as representing power and wisdom, to be respected or feared, with supernatural counterparts and even gods. 

Lots of the characteristics we associate with animals have been promoted by art through history: Snakes are sly, Lions are proud, Bulls are strong and Owls are wise. 

What animals represented was of great significance. Ermines (White Minks) were once a symbol of purity and chastity, whilst portraits of brides holding them were believed to bring good luck with fertility and given as gifts. Birds often had links to souls and redemption. It was believed that a robin gained its red breast when a drop of Christ's blood fell onto the bird as it plucked a thorn from his head to ease his suffering. Caged birds were often used as a metaphor for the soul caged in the mortal body.

The symbolism of animals can be so layered and varied we even wrote a blog just about the symbolism of butterflies and moths throughout art history.

Pet Portraits 

So, what about the paintings of animals without the symbolism? Animals that don’t signify much more than their owners love for them? This tends to arise when humans had not only domesticated animals but began to keep them solely for their companionship and affection. This is believed to have begun during the Renaissance, after pressure from the church against animal keeping for its pagan connotations was relaxed. Royalty and the upper-class often kept pets for nothing other than companionship, and these aristocrats would often commission portraits of their most cherished animals.

By the Victoria era this was considered common practice and pets would be regularly photographed and seen as members of the family. The oldest example of this was a dog mosaic found in the House of the Tragic Poet, in Pompeii; perhaps we’ve been capturing our furry friends' likeness for longer than we think.

Contemporary animal portraits 

While the practice of pet portraits may have increased dramatically through the years it has subsequently fallen from its place in ‘High Art’ due to the ubiquity of cameras and lower prices for commissioned paintings.

More recently we’ve seen the use of animals as symbols in modern art; Picasso’s obsession with bulls and Hirst’s use of real animals is a prime example of this. However, artists like Justin Coburn carry the torch for more traditional expressions of animal motifs, widely known for his emotive and romantic representations of animals, Coburn’s graceful and almost intangible portraits of animals harkens back to a time of paramount religious connotation and begs question on man’s relationship with nature. It seems as long as art exists, humans will always be using it to explore the connection between man and beast.

Justin Coburn - Whippet Head Study

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