The Orsay Zoo

ARCHIVE
2008

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Sculpture
Remrandt BugattiTwo giraffes© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski
The Menagerie at the Jardin des Plantes in Paris was founded in 1793 to display exotic animals to a public eager for novelty. It enabled artists to observe the animals there, providing courses in design and modelling. Antoine-Louis Barye and Eugène Delacroix were among the first to take advantage of this. François Pompon conceived his Polar Bear after seeing the polar bears brought back from the Far North by Philippe, Duke of Orléans. And Rembrandt Bugatti spent almost ten years at the Antwerp Zoo.

In contrast to this exoticism, farm animals provided popular subjects for specialist painters like Charles Jacque and Rosa Bonheur. In this area too, new animals were produced: it was called zootechnics. "Stud books" (providing genealogical listings of the best examples of a breed) were drawn up, and gave the "pedigrees". Unknown breeds were imported and crossbred. This was when the first competitions were introduced where animals were judged using the criteria of beauty and performance. The number of breeds increased. There was fierce competition between Arab and English thoroughbred horses. Horseracing, invented in England, became very fashionable in France, as can be seen from the paintings and sculptures of Edgar Degas.

Certain dogs, too, became very fashionable, like the griffon, as hunting remained a widespread pastime. Some animal painters were themselves hunters, like Louis de Monard, who was much sought after by an aristocratic clientele. Cats, celebrated by Baudelaire and Champfleury, became an essential part of the home, and Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen continually drew, painted and sculpted them.

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