Friday, 23 June 2017

Animal Portrait versus Animal in a Painting

Blog 25

Throughout art history animals have played a big role in paintings. Animals were painted by many famous artists and are still very popular with contemporary artists. I was actually surprised to see the large number of famous artists who painted animals. Most of them do not usually come to mind when you think of animal artists.

While I was aware that Pierre-Auguste Renoir had painted both cats and dogs in some of his well-known pieces, I was surprised to find pet portraits in his portfolio.

Maybe, you are wondering what the big difference is between animals in a painting and animal portraits. Generally speaking, a pet that is part of a group setting gives us information about its status within the group and especially about the attitude of the owner towards the animal as well as the animal's duties, in case of a hunting dog or a herding dog for example. On the other hand, in an animal portrait, the animal is the focus of the painting. Once pets became family members instead of working animals, the relationship to their owners changed. Nowadays, pets are generally considered family members, sometimes as a replacement of children or a partner. They are close companions who stay by our side throughout life's ups and downs. The artists want to show not only the appearance but also capture the character of the animal by showing it in its favourite pose and using colours and expression to demonstrate the unique character traits. Nevertheless, an animal portrait gives us indirectly some information about the owners, namely that they value the pet as a family member and wants a lasting memory to cherish the memories.

Let's look at some examples:

Pierre-Auguste Renoir's oil painting “Madame Charpentier et ses enfants (Madame Georges Charpentier and her Children) shows Madame Georges Charpentier (Marguérite-Louise Lemonnier) with her young children, Georgette-Berthe and Paul-Émile-Charles and the family dog.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir: Madame Georges Charpentier et ses enfants, via Wikimedia Commons

There is no way to miss the big, good-natured family dog in the painting as he takes in a big space in the foreground. He lives in the house and is definitely a constant companion of the family. He is loyal to his family to the point that he even endures being sat on by the kids even though he does not seem to enjoy it. However, he is also a symbol of wealth as a big dog like this needs a lot of food which only an affluent family could afford, especially because he does not seem to be a working dog.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir: Le Chat dormant, via Wikimedia Commons
Now, let's look at Renoir's painting “Sleeping Cat”, a portrait I fell in love with right away. This portrait of a sweet, innocent small cat attracts the viewer with its cuteness. I feel immediately protective and wish I could pick up the curled up soft bundle to set it on my lap. To keep the focus on the cat, the surroundings are kept loose, picking up the same colours of the cat as well as rounded shapes.

Before the invention of the camera to capture images, painting served as a means to capture life and the images of people, especially of people with social or professional power. These days, with the quick click of a camera or even your cell phone, photos are nothing special anymore. This could explain why the interest in painted portraits is still strong, especially the wish to have a special memory of our beloved pets whom we love so deeply and who do not only love us unconditionally but also bring so much joy to our lives. They demonstrate to us how to live in the moment and also make us aware of the shortness of life and our own mortality.

If you I have sparked your interest in having your own pet painted, I encourage you to come back to my blog next week, when I will tell you the process of creating my latest cat portrait, a portrait of the beautiful ragdoll cat Jessie Blue. If you have any questions with regards to giving me a commission for a pet portrait, please do not hesitate to visit my website or to contact me directly at

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