Essential Introductions: The Art of Animal Sculpture

Essential Introductions: The Art of Animal Sculpture

Over the years, animals have been used as a metaphor for the human condition, mythological representations, a window into everyday work or to make political statements. But when did the art of animal sculpture first emerge – and how has it developed over the years?

In this essential guide, we’ll explore the early history of animal sculpture. We’ll then trace the rise of key elements such as equestrian statues and the impact of international travel, before introducing some of the most famous artists creating animal sculptures today.

When did the art of animal sculpture emerge?

Artists have always been interested in representing the world around us – and animals have consistently been a part of this. One of the earliest examples of human art is a carving of a horse (dated to around 40,000–18,500 BP), found in the HaYonim Cave in present-day Israel.

Horses and lions have provided the subject matter for some of the finest works of ancient Assyrian sculpture. Similarly, the “Vogelherd horse” (c. 34,000-31,000 BC, sculpted from mammoth ivory) is one of the earliest known European artworks. Cattle, hippopotamuses, birds and fish are all sensitively depicted in by Egyptian sculptors, whilst the ancient Chinese made all forms of delicate animal sculpture in bronze and pottery.

Mythological animals in sculpture

The rich tradition of animal art strongly informed European medieval sculpture, especially the growth of elaborate zoomorphic fantasies and mythological creatures.

Centuries before this however, animal-headed Gods and creatures such as the Great Sphinx of Giza or the Minotaur (the fabulous monster of Crete with the body of a man and the head of a bull) played centre stage. Semi-abstract fantasy was also prevalent in Mexican, Maya, North American Indian, and Oceanic sculpture.

This mythological aspect has continued throughout art history, with the Minatour in particular inspiring numerous sculptures. Notable examples include that of Antonio Cavona (now held in the Victoria and Albert Museum) and modern representations such as those by Andy Scott and Katherina Pilnikova (represented by Saatchi Art).

Equestrianism and Exoticism

Horses have boasted a particularly important role in Western sculpture. Indeed, few UK cities lack an equestrian sculpture celebrating heroic generals or esteemed royalty. The Trafalgar Square statue of Charles I was the first equestrian bronze in England, executed by Hubert Le Sueur in 1629-1633.

Moving towards more experimental forms, artists such as Edgar Degas were fascinated by the unique speed and dynamism of racing horses. Numerous visits to the racetrack were supplemented by careful scrutiny of photographs, especially the studies of horses in motion by Eadweard Muybridge.

With the rise of international trade and travel from the 16th century onwards – more “exotic” animals started to appear in Western art. This is best exemplified in the lions, tigers and panthers sculpted by the Frenchman Antoine-Louis Barye working during the 19th century.

Antoine-Louis Barye was famed for his neoclassical bronzes featuring exotic animals resting or fighting. These spirited sculptures were immensely popular with fashionable French society, winning the artist numerous awards. Interestingly though, Barye himself hadn’t travelled that widely. He discovered his love of capturing the movements and form of animals at visits to the Jardin des Plantes zoo in Paris, often accompanied by his friend Eugène Delacroix.

Modern artists working with animal sculpture

Modern artists who’ve made extensive use of animal sculpture include esteemed names such as Constantin Brancusi, Pablo Picasso, Louise Bourgeois and more recently the likes of Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons.

Damien Hirst is perhaps unique among this list in experimenting with real animals in sculpture! “Mother and Child Divided” (a sculpture comprising the two halves of a cow and calf, each bisected and preserved in formaldehyde) and “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Somebody Living” (a tiger shark floating in a giant formaldehyde-filled tank) are some of the best-known examples. But the artist has also utilised fish, flies, butterflies and sheep in various assemblages.

Alongside Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons is one of the most famous sculptors working with animal forms today. Works such as “Rabbit” (1986), “Puppy” (1992) and “Balloon Dog” (1994–2000) have captured the imagination of the global art public and collectors alike.

Indeed, Jeff Koons’ playful balloon dogs are some of the most iconic works of contemporary art – with sale prices to match. In 2013, his 10-foot-tall Balloon Dog (Orange) was purchased for $58.4 million at Christie’s, setting a record for the most expensive work ever sold at auction by a living artist. Koons’ 3-foot tall silver “Rabbit” went on to break his own record in 2019, selling for a cool $91 million.

It’s perhaps no surprise that sculpture depicting man’s best friend (with Agnetha Sjögren being a notable example) has inspired modern artists. With a similar playfulness to Koons’ sculptures, Sjögren’s stylish dogs have featured in high-end magazines including Vogue, Elle and Design Week as well as prestigious exhibitions around the world.

Last but certainly not least… We can’t end an introduction to modern animal sculptors without mentioning one of the best selling bronze artists of all time, Tim Cotterill (aka Frogman). Taking inspiration from the history and symbolism of animal sculpture, Tim Cotterill has brought animals to life like no other. Fascinated by the uniquely reflective personalities of frogs, the artist has dedicated his life to producing exquisite representations of these amphibious creatures.

We’ve previously written about the history and importance of Tim Cotterill’s painstaking “lost wax” or “cire-perdue” method, but the frogs themselves also have deep symbolic meaning for the artist:

“Throughout the centuries, frogs have symbolised many things to people around the world: Energy, good luck, royalty, fertility, magic potions, charm are some of them. In capturing the essence of frogs in my sculptures, I had begun the process of healing my troubled mind and capturing my love of life once again.” – Tim Cotterill

From frogs to dogs, donkeys, horses and lions – animal sculpture is a truly fascinating artform. Rich in symbolism, mythology and tradition, it has a fascinating history stretching from ancient civilisations through to the present day.

The ArtMarket Gallery are proud to host some of today’s leading animal sculptors. Whether it’s Chris Barela’s transfixing water creatures, Jose Munoz’s beguiling ladybirds and bees, Agnetha Sjögren’s dogs or Tim Cotterill’s amphibian creations, discover animal artworks that will enrich your home and your collection.

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