Art has always been a potent vehicle for human expression. Understanding an artwork beyond the figurative context is to look for the signs and symbols of a deeper allegorical meaning. As has been found in references to Greek mythology, artists may also use animals to portray a theme.
In this blog, let us take a deep dive into the rich symbolism of paintings and their impact on the art world.
The Symbolism of Animals in Art
Paintings of nature have held a special place in the world of art for centuries. Artists from various cultures and time periods have used animals as subjects in their work, imbuing them with deep symbolic meanings. Paintings of animals focus on realism in the natural world.
From the majestic lions of ancient Egypt to the intricate bird motifs in Chinese art, animals have played diverse roles in artistic representation. These roles can be broadly categorized into religious, cultural, and personal symbolism.
Mythology and religious beliefs have been strongly tied to many paintings. In Christianity, for example, the lamb symbolizes innocence and purity, often associated with Jesus Christ as the “Lamb of God.” Famous paintings like “The Agnus Dei” by Francisco de Zurbaran beautifully capture this symbolism.
Similarly, Hinduism worships the cow, which frequently appears in Indian art as a symbol of divine and maternal qualities. Jamini Roy depicted cows in his skill to connect with religious sentiments. Such colorful animal paintings have dominated the reverent side of art for centuries.
Animals can also be influential in various cultures. The dragon, for instance, is a prominent figure in Chinese culture, representing strength, power, and good fortune. Traditionally, Chinese paintings often feature dragons alongside other animals, creating a harmonious balance of symbolism.
In Native American cultural art, the eagle symbolizes freedom and spiritual significance. The iconic painting “The Sacred Eagle” by Osage artist Shan Goshorn beautifully encapsulates this symbolism.
Artists worldwide use animal paintings to convey personal messages or emotions in their work. Frida Kahlo, the renowned Mexican artist, frequently featured animals like monkeys and deer in her self-portraits to showcase her life and inner struggles.
The Iconic Paintings
Let us take a closer look at some iconic paintings of animals that have left a mark on the world.
“Whistlejacket” by George Stubbs (1762)
“Whistlejacket” by George Stubbs is a timeless animal portraiture masterpiece. The iconic painting showcases a magnificent thoroughbred horse in all its glory in the essence of equine beauty and grace. The horse, rendered in a powerful stance against a plain background, exudes an air of nobility and strength.
The horse represents not just an animal but a symbol of nobility and untamed spirit. In the 18th century, horses were prized for their physical prowess and as a symbol of status and emblem of power, making them one of the most popular subjects of colorful animal paintings.
“Owl on a Grave” by Caspar David Friedrich (1836)
“Owl on a Grave,” a haunting masterpiece painted by Casper David Friedrich, is a profound exploration of symbolism and the human connection to the natural world. This evocative work portrays an owl perched atop a grave marker, its piercing eyes fixed on the viewer. The owl, often associated with wisdom and mystery, symbolizes transcendence and the unknown, inviting contemplation of life, death, and the enigmatic forces that lie beyond our understanding. The graveyard depicts the fleeting nature of human existence, while the owl’s presence alludes to the mysterious realms that await us in the afterlife.
“The Elephant Celebes” by Max Ernst (1921)
“The Elephant Celebes” by Max Ernst stands as a striking example of surrealism, pushing the boundaries of conventional artistic representation. In this enigmatic artwork, Ernst transforms the image of an elephant into a surreal and abstract form that defines traditional perceptions of reality. The elephant’s elongated limbs and peculiar shape create a dreamlike and mysterious atmosphere, inciting viewers of any online art exhibition to explore the profound recesses of their creativity and imagination. “The Elephant Celebes” exemplifies Ernst’s mastery of surrealism, turning the mundane into the extraordinary, leaving the audience captivated by the creation.
“The Lion and the Lamb” by William Strutt (1881)
“The Lion and the Lamb ” by Willian Strutt is a poignant masterpiece that captures the essence of contrasting forces and potential for harmony within the natural world. Strutt skillfully mixes a lion’s influential figure with a lamb’s gentle vulnerability, creating a visual paradox that invites contemplation.
The lion, typically a symbol of strength, gazes down at the lamb, which radiates an aura of innocence. The tension and harmony between “The Lion and the Lamb” prompts viewers to reflect on power, vulnerability, and the delicate balance of life.
In art, paintings of animals serve as profound reflections of our relationship with nature. These works stand as timeless testaments to the endearing bond between nature and humanity, inviting us to see beyond the canvas.