I had the opportunity to spend yesterday morning and early afternoon at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City before my evening flight home. (I was there for a Society of Animal Artists board meeting and added a little time for other things). My main purpose was to see the Kublai Khan exhibition. He was the grandson of Chinggis Khan, which I hadn’t realized until I started to learn about Mongol history. That will be a Mongolia Monday post at some point.
Afterwards, I wandered through the 19th Century European painting galleries and was reminded once again that there is no substitute for seeing masterpieces in the original. I also noticed quite a few paintings with animal subjects. I didn’t have my Nikon, just my iPhone. So the following images aren’t great, but they will serve to share my favorites.
I didn’t remember to photograph the labels for all of them, I’m sorry to say, but did track down titles and artist for all except one. But it really doesn’t matter who did them. The takeaway is to see and appreciate the great lineage of animal art that those of us who have chosen our fellow creatures as subjects are part of.
Animal art has a long and honorable history in European painting and was not dismissed with the snobbery so many of us encounter today.
It is instructive to see how artists of the period, who had tremendous ability as painters in a variety of subject matter, could also do a specialized subject like animals extremely well. That is often not the case today.
There was one entire room dedicated to European artists who painted North African subjects. Many also traveled to the Middle East. The collective term for them is Orientalists. I should do a post on them sometime since their approach and reaction to what they saw is interesting for any artist who, like myself, is also fortunate enough to journey to distant places.
What IS that black cat doing there? A spy, perhaps?
This is a detail from a massive painting of one of Napoleon’s greatest victories, with a cast of dozens. This horse is around 5″ from top of head to bottom of hoof. Stunning description of action and anatomy. Here’s the whole thing:
Since we have a rough collie in the family, I naturally had to have a photo of this one, which has a more old-fashioned shape to the head:
The Met also has a phenomenal collection of Greek and Roman sculpture. The main hall was filled with schoolkids drawing from the marble and bronze figures.
If you have access to a museum with animal sculpture, you have a great rainy day opportunity to go sketch animals that will hold still.
It’s interesting to note how artists interpreted something like the head structure of a deer over 2,000 years ago.
I also want to strongly make the point that there is no substitute for seeing great art “live”. Reproductions in books and posters are, at best, rough approximations. The color is probably not accurate. The size certainly isn’t. And size matters. The visual impact of a painting like “Friedland” is due in no small part to its large dimensions: 53.5″ high and 95.5″ wide.
But what I think is missing almost the most is that a painting has a visual texture, sometimes subtle, sometimes not. Printing an image of a painting on a flat piece of paper eliminates that aspect completely. As an admittedly dramatic example, here is a Van Gogh. First the whole work. Then a detail shot at an angle that shows how the paint was applied. When he put it on this thickly, the painting almost becomes a live thing.
A painting like this is about more than the image. It’s also about paint as paint.