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New Morgan exhibition explores the relationship between animals and the artistic imagination
Ferdinand-Eugène-Victor Delacroix (1798–1863), Royal Tiger, nineteenth century. Pen and brown ink and watercolor, over pencil. The Morgan Library & Museum, New York. Thaw Collection. Photography: Graham S. Haber, 2011.

NEW YORK, NY.- Animals have provided a particularly fertile source of inspiration for artists, writers, and composers for centuries. From the carving of ancient seals with fearsome lions and mythical beasts, to the depiction of the serpent in representations of Biblical scenes by such luminaries as Albrecht Dürer, to more recent portrayals of endearing animal figures in children’s stories, such as Babar and Winnie the Pooh, animals are everywhere. Beginning March 2, The Morgan Library & Museum explores the representation of animals—as symbols, muses, moral teachers, talking creatures, and beloved companions—in eighty works of art, demonstrating the varied roles animals have played in the hands of some of the most renowned artists represented in the Morgan’s collections. In the Company of Animals: Art, Literature, and Music at the Morgan will run through May 20.

“Animals abound in art, literature, and music,” said William M. Griswold, director of The Morgan Library & Museum. “Whether it is Albrecht Dürer’s iconic Adam and Eve, Edgar Allen Poe’s unforgettable The Raven, or such seminal stories from our childhood as Jean de Brunhoff’s Babar and E.B. White’s The Trumpet of the Swan, artists have employed animals throughout history to communicate important ideas and themes. In the Company of Animals takes the visitor on a delightful and informative tour of some the greatest of these works from the Morgan’s superlative collections.”

“Hope” is the thing with feathers – That perches in the soul –
— Emily Dickinson

Animals are not always simply animals. They can represent gods, saints, myths, sins, temperaments, emotions, and ideas. Since ancient times, artists have repeatedly turned to animals to address eternal questions of life and meaning.

The oldest work in the exhibition, a Mesopotamian cylinder seal used to make an impression when rolled over damp clay, is datable about 3500–3100 B.C. Lions prowl across the surface of the inch-high engraved stone, symbolizing the potential chaos of the natural world. Order is restored, however, by the one-eyed hero who grasps two lions upside-down. His domination over such feared creatures adds to his strength and power.

The lion is one of many animals that make an appearance in Joseph Haydn’s Creation, a musical evocation of God’s creation of the world. The first edition on view shows the “roaring” lion, as represented by bass trills; the leaps of the “flexible tiger,” by ascending runs; and the jumping of the “nimble stag,” conveyed by staccato sounds reminiscent of hunting horns. Haydn, who published this first edition himself, considered Creation the “greatest work of my life.”

The fall of Man as depicted in Albrecht Dürer’s masterful engraving Adam and Eve, of 1504, is witnessed and aided by animals. A serpent twists itself around a branch to offer Eve the forbidden fruit as four creatures lie at the couple’s feet. Though the references are obscure today, art historian Erwin Panofsky noted that an educated person in the sixteenth century would have easily recognized the moral connotations and the temperaments (or humors) associated with each animal: the elk, melancholic gloom; the rabbit, sanguine sensuality; the cat, choleric cruelty; and the ox, phlegmatic sluggishness.

Also on display is a letter in which Edgar Allen Poe sends a last minute revision of the tenth and eleventh stanzas of “The Raven” to John Augustus Shea of The New-York Daily Tribune, where the poem appeared the very next day. This revision is the earliest surviving portion of “The Raven” in the poet’s hand. Poe’s initial choice for his “bird of ill-omen” representing “Mournful and Never-Ending Remembrance” was a parrot. The parrot was, after all, capable of speech, but Poe quickly decided that the raven was “infinitely more in keeping with the intended tone” of the poem.

When describing the connection between his work and nature, Jackson Pollock famously commented, “I am nature.” Pollock’s Untitled (Abstract Ram) dates about 1944, a time when the artist incorporated Jungian theories of the unconscious and imagery of the American Southwest into his work. The drawing is suggestive of a sheep-like animal with a circular horn, elongated head and muzzle, and swirls of curly wool.

But ask now the beasts, and they shall teach thee
— Job 12:7

Foxes are considered sly, lambs gentle, and owls wise. We often make moral judgments about animal behavior, and animals have long served as stand-ins for humans in moral tales, from Aesop’s fables to Animal Farm.

Although Aesop is credited with many of the fables we know today—The Tortoise and the Hare, for example—no writings securely attributable to the sixth-century B.C. Greek storyteller survive. The exhibition includes three works related to Aesop, including the earliest known manuscript of his life and fables, made in southern Italy in the tenth or eleventh century. This manuscript also contains the earliest known Greek translation of the Fables of Bidpai, animal stories of Indian origin. Similarly on view in the exhibition is a 1666 edition of the life and fables of Aesop, lavishly illustrated by one of the most accomplished animal and bird painters in seventeenth-century England, Francis Barlow. The page on view depicts Aesop surrounded by adoring animals listening to one of his tales. Finally, a 1931 edition of Aesop’s fables combines stories collected by the seventeenth-century English author Roger L’Estrange with fifty illustrations by American artist Alexander Calder.

First published in 1667, Charles Perrault’s Tales from Times Past, with Morals: Tales of Mother Goose remains our source for many traditional fairy tales. Though fairy tales had been told for centuries, Perrault was the first to have them written down and published. On display is the manuscript page and illustration that tells the tale of Puss in Boots, who uses his industriousness and wits to help his penniless owner marry a princess.

“An animal is something you feel like talking to.”
— A child’s definition of an animal (1951)

Storytellers have long used talking animals to highlight human foibles. Unlike the animals in fables and fairy tales, which maintain their animal characteristics, the talking creatures in this section of the exhibition blur the distinction between animal and human.

George Orwell had a difficult time finding a publisher for Animal Farm, his tale of a utopia gone wrong, at the end of WWII. As Orwell himself noted, “the fable does follow…so completely the progress of the Russian Soviets and their two dictators, that it can apply only to Russia….” He further surmised, “it would be less offensive if the predominant caste in the fable were not pigs.” A first edition of the novel (eventually published in 1945) shows Orwell’s original subtitle, Animal Farm: A Fairy Story.

A life-long equestrian, Anna Sewell was appalled by the way horses, especially working horses, were often treated by their owners. She said that her purpose in writing Black Beauty, her only novel, was “to induce kindness, sympathy, and an understanding treatment of horses.” Sewell’s endeavor would appear to have been successful—the novel remains one of the best-selling books of all time. According to the title page of the 1877 first edition on view, the novel is translated from the “original equine.”

“It was a dark and stormy night....” So begins every story that Snoopy, Charlie Brown’s pet beagle and struggling novelist, attempts. The comic strip character was silent for two years before creator Charles M. Schulz gave him a voice. Inspired by his childhood dog Spike, Schulz, decided to let Snoopy “think,” noting that he had always thought there were “a lot of dogs that were smarter than their young masters.” The illustration on display shows Snoopy beginning another tale.

Although a favorite among children, Jean de Brunhoff’s Babar faces adult-size challenges. In his illustration for page nine of Histoire de Babar, the young elephant—not yet in his signature green suit—arrives at the edge of the city. The scene becomes melancholy when one realizes that Babar is on his own, his mother having just been killed by a hunter.

Sometimes musical instruments, rather than words, give a character his or her voice. Included in the exhibition are the typescript and manuscript for E.B. White’s The Trumpet of the Swan, a tale of a swan named Louis who, born mute, finds his voice after discovering his talents on the trumpet. White’s typescript and manuscript are on view. Sergey Prokofiev completed his Peter and the Wolf—a commissioned work intended to educate young children’s musical tastes—in just four days. Haunting French horns represent the wolf within the piano score on view.

“… endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”
— Charles Darwin, Origin of Species (1859)

Animals have long served as scientific and aesthetic inspiration, sometimes simultaneously. This section presents works ranging from thirteenth-century Persia to twentieth-century America, including a number of examples from the Renaissance, when a new perspective on the natural world created a lasting interest in observing, categorizing, and understanding animals. Some works reflect journeys to distant lands, filled with strange and wonderful creatures. Others show an interest in those subjects closer to home, including depictions of rural life and domestic animals.

Masters of the human figure, Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn and Peter Paul Rubens also made a number of animal sketches. Rembrandt’s Forequarters of an Elephant, of about 1637, is thought to be one of several depictions of a female elephant named Hansken who traveled from Ceylon to Amsterdam in 1637. The artist paid special attention to the texture of Hansken’s skin, and accurately depicted her with no tusks. Rubens’s Study of a Sleeping Lion is a preparatory sketch for one of the ten lions that appear in his dramatic, large painting Daniel in the Lions’ Den.

The lion appears again in Ibn Bakhtīshū’s Manafi -I hayavan, an important thirteenth-century Persian manuscript. The work describes the nature of humans, animals, birds, reptiles, fish, and insects, and also offers advice on the medicinal uses of animals. According to the text, “the tooth of a lion tied on a child makes teething easy.”

In the sixteenth century when Dutch artist Jacob de Gheyn sketched his Studies of a Frog, Dragonfly, and Fantastic Bird, creatures such as the unicorn and the griffin were still believed to exist. Even Leonardo da Vinci included the occasional dragon in his sketches. Also on display is an anonymous watercolor of a lynx and recumbent unicorn from a fifteenth-century model book—an essential point of reference for medieval artists who wished to depict animals—which shows a similar pairing of reality and myth.

John James Audubon is best known for his meticulous depictions of animals, such as this preparatory study for Gray Rabbit: Old male, female, and young, which later appeared in his The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America (1845–1848). In addition to his published comments on rabbits’ tendency to make “inroads upon the kitchen-garden, feasting on the young green peas, lettuces, cabbages, &c., and doing a great deal of mischief,” Audubon also added a deeply personal note on the reverse of the drawing: “I drew this Hare during one of the days of deepest sorrow I have felt in my life, and my only solace was derived from my Labour. This morning our beloved Daughter[-in-law] Eliza died.”

A celebration of pure fancy, Debussy’s ballet for children, La boîte à joujoux (The Toy Box), follows a group of toys that come to life, escape from their box, fall in love, and go off on adventures. The first edition on view shows the charming illustrations of artist André Hellé, who also conceived of the story.

“Animals are such agreeable friends — they ask no questions, they pass no criticisms.”
— from Scenes of Clerical Life, George Eliot

What do our relationships with animals reveal about ourselves? How can we imagine and appreciate the lives of others, whether they be animal or human? The strong bond between animals and humans is explored in these works, which focus on the beloved companions of writers and artists, as well as fictional and mythological characters.

St. Francis, the patron saint of animals, is represented in an illuminated Belgian psalter dating to 1270–1280. In the page on display, St. Francis preaches to an audience of birds that reportedly did not fly away until he was finished speaking. St. Francis was said to have hoped for “an edict prohibiting anyone from catching or imprisoning my sisters the larks.”

When poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s beloved cocker spaniel, Flush, was returned after being held for ransom, he “threw himself into my arms .. palpitating with joy .. in that dumb inarticulate ecstasy which is so affecting .. love without speech!” Browning related the story in a letter to Richard H. Horne, including a sketch of “Flushie,” noting that he is “my friend—my companion—& loves me better than he loves the sunshine without.”

Virginia Woolf took up the subject of Barrett Browning’s pet in Flush: a biography, in which she imagines life from the dog’s perspective. In one scene, Woolf addresses a quandary of particular interest to her: that we can feel so close to an animal though it remains ultimately unknowable. She considers Flush’s lack of reaction to his likeness in Barrett Browning’s letter: “He could smell nothing; he could hear nothing … The fact was that they could not communicate with words, and it was a fact that led undoubtedly to much misunderstanding. Yet did it not lead also to a peculiar intimacy?”

One hundred fifty years after Barrett Browning described her relationship with Flush, David Hockney made a similar observation about his dachshunds, Boodgie and Stanley, noting, “These two dear little creatures are my friends...I notice the shapes they make together, their sadness and their delight.” Special preparations were needed for Hockney’s series of drawings of his dogs: “I had to leave large sheets of paper all over the house and studio to catch them sitting or sleeping without disturbance.” The drawing on view shows Boodgie and Stanley resting on a cushion, curved around one another.

T.S. Eliot—“Old Possum” to his godchildren—published Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats in 1939 with inspiration from his own cat, Jellylorum. The idea for a book of poems about cats and their nature began with an illustrated letter from Eliot to his four-year-old godson Tam Faber. In it, he speaks of Jellylorum, whose “one idea is to be useful.” He “straightens the pictures” by swinging on them and “looks into the dustbin to see that nothing’s wasted.” Eliot illustrated the dust jacket for the first edition on display.

A nineteenth-century drawing by Nicolas Hüet depicts an unusual variety of companion, a giraffe known as Zarafa with her Sudanese caretaker, Atir. The giraffe was a political gift from Muhammed Ali, the Ottoman Viceroy of Egypt, to Charles X of France in an attempt to convince the King not to interfere in the war between the Ottoman Empire and the Greeks. After a two-year journey from Sudan to Paris (which included two boat rides and a 550 mile walk from Marseilles to Paris), Zarafa lived with Atir in the Jardin des Plantes for eighteen years, where he “slept within scratching reach of her head.”

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