Artistic expression has been present roughly since the first physically-modern men wandered the earth, and will likely never disappear from human cultural practices. Across all eras and continents, artists have used painting, sculpting and myriad other techniques to produce representations of generic daily life, broad zeitgeists and internal emotions or curiosities. Whether rendered with lifelike accuracy or in an unearthly, surreal composition, one would be hard pressed to encounter a work of art that does not communicate some sort of inherent significance to its viewers. While attempting to construe its understanding of the cosmos through creative means, mankind has often included animals in its iconography.
I think studying human relations with, and attitudes towards, non-human creatures is a worthwhile task that can be completed from any number of angles. It’s a line of questioning that can tell us much about who we are. Yet taking an art historical approach allows for the visual demonstration of the deep infatuation modern peoples’ ancestors harboured for animals, and can define and measure changes in many areas— including man’s valuation of animal life in comparison to his own, and the usefulness assigned to animals for survival, entertainment and companionship.
Join me on a five-part safari through the ages, as I analyse imagery that runs the chronological gamut to reveal humankind’s fluctuating glorification and demonisation of animals, and emphasise just how interconnected the history and bonds between people and other species are.
Chapter Four: The Victorians
Nearly three hundred years had to elapse before the Great Chain of Being went extinct, slowly, slowly replaced by the once unorthodox theories of evolution. During the 1800s, most Europeans held to the engrained Christian belief that God created the world in seven days, and that all animals were lovingly placed under the stewardship of Adam and his progeny as put forth in the book of Genesis. Yet a fateful ship passage would start to shake up Church-fueled doctrines.
In 1831, a young English naturalist named Charles Robert Darwin embarked on a five-year scientific expedition to the humid realms of South America aboard the HMS Beagle. During the voyage Darwin read through Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology, which suggested that fossils found in rocks were exact traces of animals that had lived many thousands or millions of years ago. Lyell’s argument was reinforced in Darwin’s own mind by the rich variety of animal life and the geological features he saw on his trip. His eureka moment arrived when he encountered finches on the Galapagos Islands, which were closely related but sported distinct, highly specialised beaks for snapping up different sorts of berries, nuts, seeds and grubs. After sending thousands of rainbow-like specimens back to England, and eventually returning there himself, Darwin compiled his learning into his Theory of Evolution, which states that all life shares roots and has descended in very competitive environments from one common ancestor. Birds and bananas, fishes and flowers, even humans— all related. The theory, first published in 1859 in Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, also maintains that complex creatures evolve from more simplistic forebears naturally over time. As random genetic mutations occur generation-by-generation by reproduction in a species’ genetic code, the beneficial mutations are preserved as they aid in survival, a process known as natural selection. Non-superficial mutations are passed on to the issue of breeding organisms, swelling together over the eons into entirely disparate entities.
The educated and elite British living under Queen Victoria in Darwin’s time first scoffed heartily into their teacups at these revolutionary conclusions, but were undeniably as equally obsessed with non-human species as Darwin himself. As the sun ceased setting on the British Empire and steam travel opened up exotic terrains, many naturalists and adventurers stuffed cargo holds full of never before seen creatures from the rainforests of South America, the boscage of India and China and the wild unknown of Africa, Australia and Polynesia. Naturally, the wealthy and middle class greedily brought them into their homes as conversation pieces and luxury curiosities. Armchair enthusiasts filled their parlours, drawing rooms and boudoirs with collections of birds, beetles, butterflies and mammals, or at least bits of them, of all taxonomies and colours and employed taxidermy on their cherished departed pets. Every hoof and claw was transformed into some fanciful new object— everything from kerosene “zoological lamps” featuring stuffed monkeys and peacocks to zebra leg cutlery and “His” and “Hers” elephant heads. Some elegant ladies of the era even incorporated clusters of hummingbirds into their evening hairstyles. Animals, exotic and domestic, at least in the more open minds among the enlightened, went from ranking unquestionably below man, to being viewed as a distant, but undeniably more equal relative of man, and their presence in Victorian homes, those lacy, ruffled, coal-burning abodes, became a fashionable and quasi-ubiquitous novelty.
Such newfound fervour for, and suspected closeness with, the animal kingdom is reflected in many artistic compositions created during the Victorian Age. Sir Edwin Henry Landseer was one English painter particularly famous for his singular images of dogs, horses and stags imbued with a certain human-esque majesty, complex personalities of their own and the capability to exude unmistakable emotions. His compositions often prompt viewers to sympathise, even empathise, with the four-legged friends contained within, for the similarities between their psyches and ours are almost tangible.
However most other popular paintings from the nineteenth-century feature saccharine, cozy imagery that underlines the role of animals within the home, as doting pets, belonging to people the same way as a coat sewn from a skinned jungle cat. Animals are more often portrayed alongside humans in a diminutive manner, pictorially distinct and lesser than man, but with some value as sentient beings able to greatly enrich domestic life.
Compulsory Education, painted by Briton Rivière in 1887, fittingly exemplifies this visual trend and would not at all have disconcerted the average Victorian amateur collector of pictures. Against a baroque floral patterned wallpaper at the centre of the piece leans a thin brunette girl, hardly appearing to be above the rosy-cheeked age of eight, who wears a pristine, starchy white gown tied with an icy blue ribbon sash. Her attention is absorbed by the text of a large red volume, and nonchalantly through her arms she cradles the painting’s focal point, the tranquil but weary-eyed face of a large black and tan hound. The figures’ bodies, shoes, stockings and heavy paws are set closely together, revealing their easy intimacy. The entirety of the scene is placed in a dim jewel-toned hall, adorned with a plush oriental rug, darkly varnished mouldings and a staunch wooden armoire. Every detail in the composition upholds the finery and decency expected in the right Victorian circles, as well as the importance of the family home. Also implied is the unparalleled sophistication and superiority of the human race; though the girl is but small, she mightily towers over her trusted canine companion. The dog’s strained-but-only-to-be-expected expression succinctly sums up the patience for masters’ whims demanded of pets meriting welcome into the house.
Yet Compulsory Education also depicts the affection and curiosity people of the nineteenth century harboured for animals, granting animals their first glimmer of sentimental and effusive worth in society. The dolled up little girl may be enveloped in the human-exclusive abstract thoughts found within the world of her book, however, it is the earnest and genuine features of the dog, its air of noble complacency that lends lustre and keeps the viewer’s eye attracted to the scene.
Rivière’s biographer, Walter Armstrong, has described the artist’s sensitive ability to depict emotion in the expressions of animals without overly anthropomorphising them, “Speaking of him broadly as an artist, Rivière’s strong points are his sympathy with animals, his pleasant sense of colour, his directness of conception…the first of these saves him from that besetting sin of the English animalier (*cough* Landseer), the dressing up in human sentiments, and the setting among human conditions, of the lower animals. His sympathy with dogs is too thorough to permit of their degradation into half-taught actors. He paints them for what they are, a symbol of what man was once, the rough material of civilisation with the virtues and vices yet unblunted by convention…his interest, in fact, is in the animal’s real self.”
Hierarchies remained rigidly in place during the Victorian era, although the bedrock upon which they were rooted was beginning to chip and fissure. Self-proclaimed supreme humans reigned atop the food chain as their deity-granted right, but began filling their own crocheted doily-covered nests and dens with animals life like never before. Whether progressive of mind and fully-subscribed to Darwin’s line of thought, or of the mind that Darwin was a total crackpot, the Victorians were obsessed with the surprises the natural world was offering to them. And artists took note, peddling their mollifying works to prim tastes, both projecting themselves onto their animal models and aiming to capture unaffected baser natures. A feathered and squawking revolution began shaking spheres of knowledge. For the first time, man was forced to react to the impact animals made upon their snug understandings of science and morality.
Next week, I’ll welcome you to Postmodernity, a phrase which could mean anything or nothing, but what I view in terms of this adventure as an unprecedented point in space-time ridden with animal rights movements, ideological crises and loads of people who prefer to identify as Furries…
Sources: BBC History, “Charles Darwin (1809-1882)”
All About Science, “Darwin’s Theory of Evolution— A Theory in Crisis”
Melissa Milgrom, “Cool, Dead and Stuffed”, The Daily Beast, 11 March 2010
Walter Armstrong, “Briton Rivière, Royal Academician, His Life and Work”, special Edition of The Art Annual, 1891, p.24
Golden Age of Painting Blog “Briton Rivière— Compulsory Education”, 8 December 2010