Photographic Display

Framing the Animal Kingdom. Animals in the Musée d'Orsay photographic collection

Room 19

AnonymousBoy holding an Ass© Musée d'Orsay, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Alexis Brandt
Very shortly after the official birth of photography in 1839, the main technical challenge facing pioneers of the medium (chemists, opticians and artists) lay in trying to capture living subjects. A human being can stay still by choice; early portraits show individuals with fixed grins, frozen for several minutes in uncomfortable poses. The behaviour of animals is more unpredictable, even when they are domesticated. A whole arsenal of techniques was therefore deployed to make animals hold a pose: leads, specially installed stands, the lure of a reward or the threat of punishment. Others preferred animals to be asleep, dead or even artificial!

Animals were ubiquitous in 19th century photography, in artists' reference material, scientific studies, experiments with snapshots, illustrated reports and pictures with artistic aspirations in the tradition of genres such as portraiture and still life. These many and varied representations of animals reflect their position in a very strict hierarchy (ranging from the brute beast, such as the monkey, to noble creatures like horses and lions) and also a gradual change in status. There was a steady shift from animals as production tools, staple foodstuff, or “personal property” as enshrined in the French Civil Code of 1804, to the concept of a pet, thus anticipating the recent definition of an animal under French law as a “living being endowed with sensitivity”.
To see the selection of photographs currently on display in this gallery, please click here


Marie Robert, curator of photographs, Musée d'Orsay


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