From the earliest times, artists have created vivid images of animals as a means of manifesting beliefs, theories, and social interactions. Starting in the Renaissance, artists began studying the anatomy of animals and included them in the backgrounds of their paintings. However, the specialty of animal painting developed until the 17th century when daily life scenes and later on hunting and sporting themes flourished. Next to this, for centuries artists drew artful scientific illustrations of animals which were instrumental to the development of natural sciences. In this article, we explore who are twenty of the most talented artists that portrayed animals following an artistic or scientific motivation.
- 1. Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528)
- 2. Jan Breughel the Elder (1568-1625)
- 3. Frans Snyders (1579-1657)
- 4. Diego Velázquez (1599-1660)
- 5. Carel Fabritius (1622-1654)
- 6. Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717)
- 7. James Seymour (1702-1752)
- 8. George Stubbs (1724-1806)
- 9. Philip Reinagle (1749-1833)
- 10. Sarah Stone (1760-1844)
- 11. John James Audubon (1785-1851)
- 12. Ferdinand Victor Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863)
- 13. Elizabeth Gould (1804-1841)
- 14. Rosa Bonheur (1822-1899)
- 15. Edgar Degas (1834-1917)
- 16. Cassius Marcellus Coolidge (1844-1934)
- 17. Henri Rousseau (1844-1910)
- 18. Matilda Lotz (1858-1923)
- 19. Louis Wain (1860-1939)
- 20. Lily Attey Daff (1885-1945)
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1. Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528)
Dürer was a reputed printmaker, theorist, and artist who created realistic images of animals, many of which were later reproduced in engravings and woodcut prints. Particularly, Dürer took great care in portraying the fur of horses, squirrels, or hares with extreme detail. Some say his distinctive flow of lines makes his works instantly recognizable. One of the artist’s most acclaimed depictions of animals is Young Hare, celebrated for its impressive detail and contrast of colors. Dürer probably painted this watercolor utilizing both a stuffed model and living animals as examples. Impressively, the image includes the reflection of what is thought to be the artist’s studio in one of the hare’s eyes.
2. Jan Breughel the Elder (1568-1625)
Jan Breughel the Elder was known for his images of exotic animals. The artist was able to study these species from life given they were collected by his employers, Archduke Albert and Infanta Isabella, rulers of the Southern Netherlands (current Brussels). These monarchs were not alone in their interest in exotic animals as the exploration of the Americas spurred an increased curiosity about the natural world and noblemen frequently owned animals from faraway lands. Over time, Breughel created many paintings of Paradise Landscapes which featured exotic animals as part of bible scenes. The painting we see here is regarded as the prototype of that subject matter. Inspired by the story of Noah, the composition is filled with different species. The central element of the composition is a triumphant horse whose enlarged scale has been interpreted by some as a representation of the conquests of the new world.
3. Frans Snyders (1579-1657)
Snyders was one of the most important 17th-century painters of animals. He included parrots, monkeys, dogs, and cats in his still-life scenes of markets and pantries and also portrayed them fighting or in hunting scenes. The artist learned his craft from the masters as his family’s inn was frequented by famous artists like Pieter Bruegel the Younger, also in this list. Snyders had a successful career. He was employed by Antwerp’s most famous artists, such as Peter Rubens, to paint the animals in their pictures. He also received many commissions for his hunting scenes. One of the symbolic representations of animals that Snyders created and to which he returned regularly is the concert of birds. Images of different kinds of birds perched on trees, sometimes with musical scores like the one we see here, were popularized by Flemish artists in the early 17th century as a means to represent the desired political and social order.
4. Diego Velázquez (1599-1660)
Diego Velázquez was a celebrated artist who worked for the Spanish King for most of his life. Resulting from this prestigious job, he created many expressive portraits of female and male members of the nobility riding on stallions or next to dogs of diverse breeds. Notably, the artist’s distinctive naturalistic style marked a breakthrough in the history of portraiture and scene painting and influenced future generations of artists. This oil painting depicting a deer’s head is believed to capture the aftermath of a hunting scene, a topic popular in the Spanish court as almost all of the country’s monarchs were passionate about hunting. The freshness, immediacy, and naturalism of the animal’s head have made experts refer to it as a true portrait of an animal. Here, the animal stares directly at us, the viewers, as if acknowledging our presence.
5. Carel Fabritius (1622-1654)
Carel Fabritius was a Dutch 17th-century painter with a unique style of painting. During his brief lifetime, the artist painted still-life scenes featuring various animals. Resulting from his sudden death at age 32, the artist only left behind a small body of 12 works, each one of which is considered a masterpiece. One of those works is the painting of a little Goldfinch, a bird usually kept as a pet, sitting on its feeder and chained by its foot. The work was finished in 1654 and has been celebrated for the artist’s subtle blending of colors to create the many different shades of golden-yellow that bring to life the animal’s feathers. Interestingly, the painting was lost for more than two centuries before it resurfaced in Brussels and was restored in 2003.
6. Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717)
Maria Sibylla Merian was a naturalist, artist, and explorer who paved the way for the emergence of modern entomology. She was the daughter of an artist and learned to draw and paint from an early age. In her childhood years, the artist started to collect, observe and draw the life cycles of butterflies, an interest she kept throughout her life. Over time, Maria documented the development of insects and even embarked on a scientific journey through Surinam. Her seminal book, titled Metamorphosis, featured her findings and included her intricate illustrations of insects’ life cycles next to associated food plants. This approach was innovative as beforehand insects were depicted without any sort of context. The image we see here is an example of the scientist’s mastery of drawing as it meticulously portrays the different stages of a flying insect’s life cycle.
7. James Seymour (1702-1752)
James Seymour is known for his equestrian scenes and is recognized as one of the first sporting artists in Britain. James had a privileged upbringing and, although he had no formal training, learned to draw by studying the pictures in his father’s collection. At the same time, he copied artworks from the British Museum. The artist’s earliest signed and dated racehorse painting is from 1721 and, over time, he received many commissions for horse scenes from noblemen and aristocrats. Some of his racing and hunting scenes were also engraved in the 1740s and 1750s. Even if the artist was popular and came from money, his affinity for horse races bankrupted his father. In this painting, we see a hunting scene in which three horses are led by a group of hounds. While the proportions of the animals are not completely accurate, the artist captured the feeling of excitement resulting from such a scene, something he experienced regularly.
8. George Stubbs (1724-1806)
Stubbs’s naturalistic paintings of horses are considered to be some of the most accurate representations of this animal. The artist’s realistic portrayal of equines is explained by his anatomical studies. He even published a treaty on the subject titled The Anatomy of the Horse. George’s works were popular and often included many of the noblemen who founded London’s Jockey Club. The painting titled Whistlejacket is probably the most well-known portrait of a horse. It is also widely acknowledged to be Stubbs’s masterpiece. The Arabian chestnut stallion depicted here had won many races but by 1762 had been retired. He belonged to a distinguished Marquess, who commissioned Stubbs to paint a large-scale painting of his beloved animal. Here, the horse is the portrait’s main subject and is placed against a golden background.
9. Philip Reinagle (1749-1833)
Reinagle was born in Edinburgh but came to London in 1763 to be the apprentice and later on the assistant of Scottish artist Allan Ramsay. After Ramsay’s death, Reinagle pursued his practice and created expressive animal portraits. Reinagle excelled mainly in hunting pictures and, over time, dogs turned into his specialty. His paintings of canines were highly regarded and were reproduced, for example, in William Taplin’s Sportsman’s Cabinet (1803). They were also widely collected by Colonel Thomas Thornton, an eccentric huntsman, and breeder of greyhounds. On the merit of his animal and sporting pictures, Reinagle was elected an associate of the Royal Academy in 1787 and became a full Member in 1812. This painting of a sportsman and his dog reflects Reinagle’s deep understanding of the canine’s anatomy and personality. The dog is in a state of alertness, maybe it has spotted a new prey.
10. Sarah Stone (1760-1844)
Stone started painting professionally at age 17, and while having learned drawing techniques from his father, she was mostly a self-taught artist. The artist painted over a thousand watercolors of birds, mammals, fishes, and insects including many brought back from Captain Cook’s round-the-world travels. Stone’s work was recognized during her lifetime. As proof of this, she was invited to exhibit her animal paintings at the Royal Academy, which was closed to women at the time. She also had many commissions from prominent collectors. Stone usually based her depictions of animals using her imagination informed by the field notes scientists took on their expeditions. Next to this, she sometimes copied the specimens brought back to England. This image of a green parrot exemplifies Stone’s impressive drawing and painting skills. We can almost touch the bird’s feathers!
11. John James Audubon (1785-1851)
John James Audubon was a self-taught ornithologist and artist. He is known for the book The Birds of America, a series of 435 life-sized, hand-colored plates of the continent’s avifauna derived from his realistic watercolor paintings of birds. Notably, the artist used real specimens, many of which he collected during his travels, to accurately capture all of their features. This process frequently involved killing his subjects to arrange them in life-like postures with a system of wires and pins. The resulting images, made mostly with watercolors and pastel crayons, captured the birds in life-size proportions and animated positions, something that revolutionized the portrayal of animals for scientific purposes. This illustration of a pigeon reflects Audubon’s style as the birds are represented with great detail in complex animated postures.
12. Ferdinand Victor Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863)
Delacroix is one of the most important figures of French Romanticism. As part of his practice, the artist depicted horses and other species usually frightened or under attack. Delacroix spent hours at Paris’ Museum of Natural History sketching the animals he later used in his paintings and also took inspiration from the prints that appeared in scientific publications. Over the years, Delacroix’s trips to exotic lands, such as Algiers, inspired him to create scenes involving animals that depict fantasies about the Arab world. For instance, in this painting of a lion hunt, the artist synthesized studies of landscapes, Islamic costumes, and zoo animals to bring this narrative to life with a dramatic touch. This is one of the many versions of this scene the artist revisited between 1856 and 1861.
13. Elizabeth Gould (1804-1841)
Elizabeth’s Gold was overshadowed by the fame of her husband, John Gould, a reputed English scientist who studied birds. It was a collection of her letters discovered by her descendants in 1938 that revealed the important role Elizabeth had in the work of her life partner. The artist married John at a young age and, given her artistic talents, started to illustrate her husband’s work. Gould entrusted his wife with the creation of the plates for his first folio publication, A Century of Birds from the Himalaya Mountains. Over time she also contributed to several other publications and even accompanied her husband on an expedition to Australia in support of his ambition to publish The Birds of Australia. Unfortunately, Elizabeth died at a young age but left behind an impressive body of animal illustrations. The lithograph of two birds we see here evidences Gould’s mastery of drawing and watercolor and reflects her knowledge of anatomy and locomotion.
14. Rosa Bonheur (1822-1899)
Rosa Bonheur painted animals, like sheep, oxen, horses, and lions, with an astounding amount of realism. She was the daughter of artist Raymond Bonheur who took her to the Louvre to copy artworks and also encouraged her to paint scenes of living animals. During her lifetime, the artist enjoyed success and lived an unconventional lifestyle for her gender as she was financially independent and never married. The Horse Fair is Bonheur’s best-known oil painting and has been described as “the world’s greatest animal picture.” The painting, which debuted in Paris’ Salon in 1853, shows a horse market held in Paris, where the artist frequently sketched dressed as a man to discourage attention. This expressive painting perfectly captures the anatomy of the horses as they are running. As further proof of the fame of this artwork, it was widely reproduced and sold as a print across Britain, continental Europe, and the US. Even Queen Victoria attended a private viewing of the masterpiece.
15. Edgar Degas (1834-1917)
Impressionist artist Edgar Degas loved horses and studied this animal’s locomotion in great detail. Resulting from this interest, he drew many sketches of horses and painted race-course scenes characteristically manipulating his horses and jockeys from one picture to the next. In this way, most of his figures are repeated across different compositions. The painting titled Jockeys in the Rain reflects the artist’s style as it portrays the tense atmosphere and state of alertness resulting from the horses and men about to race. The falling raindrops certainly add to the building tension featured in this scene.
16. Cassius Marcellus Coolidge (1844-1934)
Coolidge was a self-taught artist who created playful illustrations of animals. Between 1894 and 1910 the artist focused on portraying anthropomorphic dogs. The artist’s most celebrated series of dog paintings are the 18 images he did of canines playing poker, most of which were commissioned by Brown & Bigelow to advertise cigars. These artworks were used on promotional printed materials of all kinds. Calendars, in particular, proved to be popular nationwide. Over time, Coolidge’s art found its way into millions of homes and later on became part of contemporary pop culture. The painting we see here includes hounds wearing glasses, smoking, and drinking whiskey. They even seem to be bluffing and have “poker” faces.
17. Henri Rousseau (1844-1910)
Henri Rousseau was a self-taught Post-Impressionist painter known for his primitive or naïve style. Notably, the artist started painting at almost 50 years of age as he previously worked as a lawyer, served in the army, and collected taxes. Inspired by illustrations from children’s books, exotic cultures, and Parisian botanical gardens, Rousseau frequently depicted jungle scenes with tigers as a way of acknowledging nature’s forces and savage instincts. Rousseau’s amateurish technique and unusual compositions were critiqued during his time, and his legacy was only recognized towards the end of his life. The painting titled Tiger in a Tropical Storm (Surprised!) was the first of the artist’s jungle paintings. It shows a tiger illuminated by a flash of lightning preparing to attack its prey. The colors of the tiger seamlessly blend with the ones of the jungle we see in the background.
18. Matilda Lotz (1858-1923)
Matilda Lotz was a prominent animal artist. She was raised in the Lotz House, in Franklin, Tennessee, which later became the site of an American Civil War Battle and is now a historical destination. Shortly after the war, Matilda’s family relocated to California where she attended San Francisco’s School of Design and continued her education in Paris with artist Felix-Joseph Barrias, a famous animal painter. Over time, Lotz traveled alone throughout Europe and North Africa, something uncommon for an unchaperoned woman. She was also close to artist Rosa Bonheur, also included in this list, and received several European commissions from members of British nobility. Like Rosa, Matilda, who was called “the American Rosa Bonheur,” painted detailed scenes of farm animals and different cat and dog breeds with a naturalistic touch.
19. Louis Wain (1860-1939)
Louis Wain was an accomplished commercial illustrator credited for changing people’s feelings about felines. The artist’s life was marked by tragedy. Shortly after he married his wife was diagnosed with cancer and, as a way of entertaining her, Wain started drawing cartoons of his cat, Peter. The artist’s cartoons of cats involved in human-like activities got the attention of the newspapers where Wain worked as an illustrator and turned into a sensation. Regardless of his fame, the artist always struggled with money and mental health. After ending up in a pauper’s hospital, a campaign was launched to guarantee he received proper attention, something that reflects the appreciation people felt for him. This watercolor depicts a group of humanized cats playing musical instruments. Some of them are committed to their musical endeavors while others appear to be distracted or have tripped.
20. Lily Attey Daff (1885-1945)
Lily Attey Daff was a successful artist and illustrator. She first studied in London and moved to Otago, New Zealand, in 1926. While in Otago, she prepared illustrations for scientific books and magazines that analyzed New Zealand’s bird and flower species. For example, between 1927 and 1931, she executed watercolors for New Zealand’s Forest and Bird Protection Society, many of which were published in books and as journal covers. Interestingly, Daff also painted dioramas and illustrated the pamphlets of the Otago Museum, where she worked for twelve years. This watercolor of a bird reflects Daff’s dominion of drawing. Here, the blue-colored bird is depicted with great detail against a realistic landscape populated by hills that add depth to the composition.
For centuries the depiction of animals had a secondary role. It wasn’t until the 17th and 18th centuries that the figure of the animalier, or animal specialist, emerged and when hunting and racing scenes or those featuring domestic animals became popular.
- Animal illustrations were fundamental for scientists. For this reason, many artists specialized in depicting animals with great realism. Only until recently the work of these artists, many of whom were women, has been recognized.
- The horse is one of the most frequently represented animals of all time. First, it was included in portraits of monarchs and history paintings and later on appeared in sporting, hunting, and racing scenes.
- Domestic animals, like dogs and cats, also populated animal paintings. They were represented next to their owners but, over time, took center stage.
- Women animal artists were usually relegated. However, the case of Rosa Bonheur stands out as she was financially successful and well-respected.
- You can take the work of these multifaceted artists as inspiration for your next animal painting!
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