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Above: The Jealous Lioness, c. 1880, Paul Meyerheim, German, 1846-1915, oil on canvas, Das Städel, Städelsches Kunstinsitut und Städtische Galerie, Frankfurt am Main


In essence, the exhibition traces the evolution of animals as creatures to be owned, used, and eaten by mankind to the uncomfortable truth that humans are properly ranked as animals themselves, however special.













A Young Girl Mourning Her Dead Bird, c. 1765, Jean-Baptiste Greuze, French, 1724-1805, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh


Hare and Leg of Lamb, 1742, Jean-Baptiste Oudry, French, 1686-1755, oil on canvas, The Cleveland Museum of Art, John L. Severance Fund



RIght: The Horse Fair, 1855, Rosa Bonheur, 1822-1899, and Nathalie Micas, 1824-1889, oil on canvas, The National Gallery, London










“We were struck by the paradox that a show about animals is really about people.”

-Louise Lippincott


















RIght: Man Proposes, God Disposes, 1863-64, Edwin Landseer, British, 1802-1873, oil on canvas, Collection, Royal Holloway, University of London, Egham, Surrey


Fierce Friends: Artists and Animals, 1750–1900

W.C. Fields, when he was asked whether he liked children, responded “I like children — fried.” So what about animals? Variously served, they are indeed delicious. But they are also dished up as “man’s best friend.” Frequently, we find ourselves pitted against them. And, just as often, we need to save them.

What are we to make of this complex paradox? At Carnegie Museum of Art, such paradoxes become kaleidoscopic in the exhibition Fierce Friends: Artists and Animals, 1750–1900, which looks at the animal world and how mankind—and artists in particular—have responded to it.

Surely, you might ask, isn’t this the territory of Carnegie Museum of Natural History next door, where science trumps art and a healthy rationalism keeps our more subjective intuitions in check? It could have happened that way, but this exhibition is the product of two art-historical minds: Louise Lippincott, curator of fine arts at Carnegie Museum of Art, and Andreas Blühm, former head of exhibitions and display at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and current director of the Wallraf-Richartz Museum in Cologne. Together they have stretched the ordinary parameters of an art exhibition, pulling in both science and moral philosophy. In fact, for the Pittsburgh showing of Fierce Friends, which opens to members on March 25 and to the public on March 26, Lippincott tapped the expertise—and the collections— of her colleagues at Carnegie Museum of Natural History to make the exhibition even more scientifically significant.

Lippincott and Blühm joined forces once before in the 2000-2001 exhibition, Light! The Industrial Age, 1750–1900, Art and Science, Technology and Society. Looking back on that first joint endeavor, Lippincott acknowledges, “Both the concept and structure of Light! were quite radical, and Fierce Friends works upon a similarly adventurous blueprint.”

In a review of the Amsterdam showing of the exhibition in London’s daily Telegraph,
distinguished art critic Richard Dorment recognized the show’s ambitious and innovative design. But it was his comments about the show’s curators that made the biggest impact: “For my money, they are the most interesting art historians working anywhere in the world today.

Lippincott and Blühm settled on the subject of animals over conversations (and coffee and Dutch apple pie enjoyed in museums and cafés throughout Amsterdam) shortly after Light! Blühm recalls: “We had skirted the subjects of 19th-century radicalism and industrialization, and then we fell upon animals and the fact that Darwin was arguably a more lasting influence than Freud. We decided then to see how the subject worked out.”

Lippincott adds, “We were struck by the paradox that a show about animals is really about people.”

Pests, Pets, Power, and Protein
The period covered by the exhibition, 1750 to 1900, is a loose timeframe used by the curators to explore man’s relationship with animals and how it changed as humankind’s knowledge of the natural world expanded. Four key themes emerge: animals as pests, animals as pets, animals as a source of power, and animals as a source of food.

The first viewpoint considers animals as pests: creepy crawlies, critters that bite, destroy our material goods, and cause us discomfort or unease. A flea, a wasp, a spider, a bat, a weasel, and a snake all make an appearance here in paintings, prints, ceramics, and drawings by artists both world-famous and little known (you won’t see this happening in many art museums; this selection is completely unpretentious).

By contrast, the works that consider animals as pets evoke all our softer sentiments. This brings out the artists in force, particularly the French, who are well known for exploring and testing our emotions with their works.

Eighteenth-century Europeans cast their pets in the characters of their owners, be they high or low. Jean-Baptiste Oudry’s (1686-1755) portrait of a female hound suckling her puppies proclaims the moral virtues of the good mother. And a weeping girl politely laments the death of her pet in a work by Jean-Baptiste Greuze (1725-1805). In the context of the period, this painting unleashes a host of classical references and moral warnings.

While pests and pets are still with us today, we realize by studying the art of the past that we are losing familiarity with powerful animals. Until the mid- to late 19th century, animals were the critical source of power in the world, carrying soldiers into the field of battle, working the fields, and providing transport. In 1750, it was all horses and oxen. By 1900, it was increasingly horsepower.

Rosa Bonheur’s The Horse Fair (1855), is a reduced version of a 16-foot painting shown in the Paris Salon of 1853. It still conveys the majesty and power of the Percheron, the great French draft horse, but it is on the verge of becoming an elegy for a way of life, at least in the Western world. The buildings in the background are the modern, urban Paris; the steam engine has long been invented, and the horse is gradually losing its place in the public thoroughfare.

Then, of course, there is the animal as a food source. Today, while we still know that to enjoy a nice steak or a haunch of venison an animal must die, we are largely spared any direct sense of it. We might eat differently if every neighborhood still featured a slaughterhouse. But animals remain, for most people, an essential source of food, which is the fourth category devised by Lippincott and Blühm to denote aspects of our perception of animals in daily life.

Paintings of dead game often graced the dining room walls or entry halls of 18th-century homes. Oudry’s A Hare and a Leg of Lamb (1742) exemplifies luxury and the good life to visitors who might be expected to salivate in its uncannily real presence. At the same dinner party, an earthenware head of a boar might grace the table as a tureen; and diners might eat off plates decorated with animals, birds, or fish made from fine porcelain.

Discovery Breeds Understanding
By 1750, the world was almost completely discovered and crudely mapped. But much of the animal world remained a closed book, only occasionally yielding up its hidden secrets. And they were true treasures, things of wonderment to be viewed in amazement before being rationally comprehended.

For the artist, the task of representing such exotic animals was seldom easy. Often the corpse was the only model, sometimes the tanned pelt, a skeleton, or a skinned bundle of feathers. (Even van Gogh kept by him the stuffed skin of a kingfisher.) Reconstruction was tentative and often amateurish.

Handling the pages of an album of etchings of a leopard by the master printmaker Paulus Potter, Lippincott points out that we can detect, despite the imaginary landscape surrounding the beast, that the animal was likely caged and probably malnourished or sick and disabled by its unnatural environment. As a complement to this portion of the exhibition, Lippincott will include a small but immensely valuable survey of taxidermy, partly drawn from the reserves of Carnegie Museum of Natural History next door.

As knowledge of the natural world began to deluge the 18th century, suddenly scientists had to deal with it, turning the new material into taxonomic systems, sifting and constantly rearranging things as new discoveries were made. Artists had to keep up, balancing the instinct to beautify and decorate in the search for a collected realism.

Consider the Giraffe painted by an unknown Frenchman around 1785. The specimen was not alive; only the skin was available for study. Then compare it to the portrait painted less than 50 years later by the Swiss Jacques-Laurent Agasse (1767-1827) of a live giraffe that was presented to King George IV (see cover). The animal looks right, even if it is being fed milk from a bowl like a domestic cat, indifferent to the tempting leaves on the trees above.

The Comte de Buffon’s comprehensively illustrated Natural History, 1749-1788, is one of many encyclopedic works that might have been found in any educated man’s library at the time. And as science spilled out into the general culture, porcelain plates and other objects derived from work by Buffon and his contemporaries began to fill the home. Several stunning examples of these household items from the Museum of Art’s Decorative Arts Department will be included in the exhibition to provide a parallel to Buffon’s flat, illustrated pages.

A Date with Darwin
By the 19th century, the amount of scientific material that had been collected and catalogued enabled bolder speculation. Enough bones, feathers, and other structures came together to tell new stories through comparative anatomy. The study of both living animals and those long extinct offered a prospect of theories that questioned older beliefs. After 1859, the year of the publication of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species, the primacy of man, created (in an instant) by God, was no longer so firmly asserted. And artists, whose minds often are more intuitive than rational, became profound commentators on the subject.

Sir Edwin Landseer’s Man Proposes, God Disposes (1863–64), created during the first wave (there have been many) of the Darwinian furor, neatly projects an artistic question mark into the painting. Two polar bears sift the remains—a rib cage and wreckage—of an ill-advised Arctic expedition. In this painting, clearly the fittest survive; but what does the carefully chosen title of the work import, if not a grim irony?

In essence, the exhibition traces the evolution of animals as creatures to be owned, used, and eaten by mankind to the uncomfortable truth that humans are properly ranked as animals themselves, however special. Time and other circumstances have changed our attitudes toward our Fierce Friends; we have grown closer to them, yet at the same time we find ourselves further distanced from them. Much of this change has been little noticed by the average man, and Lippincott and Blühm draw attention to our ignorance.

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Louise Lippincott, Curator of Fine Arts

Recently lauded by British art critic Richard Dorment as one of the most interesting art historians working in the world today, Louise Lippincott joined Carnegie Museum of Art as curator of fine arts in 1990. While simultaneously working on several other key projects, Lippincott spent the last three years working long-distance with Andreas Blühm, former head of exhibitions and display at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and current director of the Wallraf-Richartz Museum in Cologne, to organize the exhibition Fierce Friends: Artists and Animals, 1750–1900. It was the second successful collaboration for the two curators; they organized Light! The Industrial Age, 1750–1900, in 2001.

Lippincott and Blühm were introduced by a mutual friend and colleague from Philadelphia, and they connected instantly over a shared interest in art and science in the late 18th and 19th centuries. When asked how they were able to assemble two wide-ranging, critically acclaimed exhibitions over such a short timeframe—and from opposite sides of the Atlantic—Lippincott replies, “E-mail. Without it, these projects would have taken a lot longer and cost a whole lot more. Being able to talk online and share files instantly really simplified the whole collaborative process.”

Without communication issues to contend with, Lippincott says the hardest thing about organizing the two exhibitions was arranging important loans from other museums. Fortunately, both times, Lippincott was able to borrow a wealth of artifacts and specimens from Carnegie Museum of Natural History next door that complemented the works of art she and Blühm had chosen. “My colleagues at the Museum of Natural History have been incredibly helpful and generous,” she says. “Their collections were instrumental in both Light! and Fierce Friends.”

Though Lippincott and Blühm share a passion for the time period covered by Fierce Friends, Lippincott says they approached the subject of animals differently. “My grandfather had a farm; I love to ride horses; and I’ve always had pets. Being so familiar with animals, I often found myself selecting artwork based on the animals depicted. Andreas isn’t as fond of animals as I am, so he selected pieces based on the work itself or the artist. It had never occurred to me to extend my fondness for animals to my work, but once the two came together, my personal background proved to be quite useful.”

By all accounts, Lippincott and Blühm make a great curatorial team. Both of their exhibitions have been well received by audiences, scholars, and critics alike. “Our projects have been immensely rewarding,” she says. “I’ve started to see some of our ideas pop up in other places and it’s very gratifying. It would be nice if we started a trend.”

Is a third collaboration in the works? Lippincott replies, quickly: “I never say never. My guess is we’ll probably work together again, but I can’t think about that right now. I have a show to put on here in Pittsburgh first.”


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