Frogs in Folklore and Fine Art

Frogs in Folklore and Fine Art

In celebration of the work of Tim Cotterill (often better known as Frogman!), today we’re exploring a rather more unusual topic – frogs in fine art.

Frogs have played a multitude of roles in arts and culture throughout the ages. Whilst they may not seem an immediately obvious choice, you’d be surprised at the number of toads and frogs appearing in art.

From Japanese folklore and French fairy tales to the Brothers Grimm and Ancient Egyptian mythology – frogs have variously symbolised fertility, harmony, good luck and licentiousness. They’ve been used for moral lessons in the fables of Aesop, appeared in the art of Edo masters, Van Gogh and even David Hockney. And what’s more… It's not just paintings. Tim Cotterill’s modern, jewel-hued sculptures can also be linked to a rich tradition of frogs in sculptural forms.

Let’s hop to it…

What do frogs symbolise in art and culture?

Frogs have symbolised many things across cultures all over the globe. Some of the most widespread early depictions of frogs in art came from Native American societies. Here, the frog symbolised wealth and abundance. As a lucky symbol, many tribes put frog coins in their purses to prevent losing money, with some carving frogs on house posts in the belief that frogs would stop structures from collapsing.

In ancient Egyptian mythology and art, frogs were uniquely tied to the flooding of the Nile. Representing life and fertility, the Egyptian frog-goddess Heqet was often depicted as a woman with a frog’s head. Chinese tradition similarly associated frogs with female energy (the frog spirit Ch'ing-Wa Sheng was associated with healing and good fortune in business) – but also as tricksters and magicians.

Japanese folklore tells of a toad that learnt the secret of immortality. This may be linked to Native American shamanistic traditions where hallucinogens derived from frogs were used for religious rituals and communion with the spirit world.

In Greek and Roman mythology, fertility became mixed with more licentious behaviour. These negative overtones are reflected in the Bible with frogs forming the Second Plague of Egypt and later becoming linked with unclean spirits in the book of Revelation. In turn, these associations fed into Renaissance Europe’s links between frogs, witchcraft and greed. As Shakespeare’s witches cry in the opening lines of Macbeth “Paddock calls!”. Here, paddock represents a witch’s animal familiar (in the form of a toad) helping to carry out their evil deeds.

How have frogs been depicted in art?

With a glimpse into the rich symbolism of frogs in art and culture, here are just a few fascinating depictions of frogs throughout art history…

Jacob de Gheyn, “A Frog Sitting on Coins and Holding a Sphere: Allegory of Avarice” (1609), open content via the J. Paul Getty Museum and the Getty Research Institute.

The Dutch painter and engraver Jacob de Gheyn’s depiction of a frog sitting on coins (serving as an allegory of avarice) is a particularly interesting study. At first glance, this drawing of a frog appears to be a closely observed study of the natural world. But on closer inspection, the frog is clearly imbued with human characteristics. Its webbed feet are transformed into claw-like hands, with the hump of its back suggests a deformed man. With a raised head and unflinching gaze, the frog unapologetically grabs at the coins – symbolising worldly greed.

In line with Jacob de Gheyn’s characterful depiction, modern artists such as Tim Cotterill have spoken about the frog’s uniquely expressive nature:

“I used to watch frogs at my pond, noting how each one had its own colour markings, character and even personality… I was intrigued by the challenge of capturing their personalities… This perspective, combined with what I imagine as an almost cartoon-like quality of a frog’s expression, engaged my imagination.” – Tim Cotterill

In contrast to the negative connotations of later European folklore, Tim Cotterill’s bronze sculptures have rescued and rehabilitated the frog to its earlier associations with good luck, energy and charm. With names like Sneaky Pete, Free Spirit and Prince Charming, it’s not hard to see their characters shining through.

Whilst Tim Cotterill’s painstaking bronze sculptures (created via the cire-perdue or “lost wax” method) feel incredibly modern – frogs have been a mainstay of many sculptural traditions.

Native American art particularly utlised frogs, for instance on Cherokee bottles, Navajo Kachinas (a small carved figure, representing a deified ancestral spirit) or Tlingit dishes formed in the shape of a frog. With their links to water and good luck, frogs appear in all sorts of Japanese art, from delicately adorned vases to classic prints such as Matsumoto Hoji’s “grumpy frog” and small sculptures simply depicting frogs and toads in their element.

This Japanese tradition inspired one of the most innovative European artists of all time – Vincent Van Gogh. Van Gogh had a fascination with Japanese culture (even though he never visited the country in person!), and produced many artworks inspired by the great masters. One such was “Courtesan” (1887) based on work by Kesai Eisen. If one studies the colorful border carefully, bamboo canes, water lilies, frogs and cranes emerge – all motifs that Van Gogh borrowed from Japanese prints. The choice of animals was certainly not accidental. In 19th century France, prostitutes were referred to as “grues” (cranes) or “grenouilles” (frogs) – harking back to earlier links with frogs, fertility and sexuality.

In more recent times, you may be surprised to learn that even artists such as David Hockney have made frogs centre-stage. His “Frogs in the Garden” (created as part of a set and costume design project with the New York Metropolitan Opera) recently sold for $252,000 at Phillips auction house.

The ArtMarket Gallery is an award-winning independent gallery based in the beautiful village of Cottingham, East Yorkshire. With an unrivalled collection including Tim Cotterill’s bronze frogs, David Hockney prints and paintings and many more leading contemporary artists – we help buyers find art they truly love.
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