Art History Lab

The Power and Beauty of Animals in Painting: From Symbolism to Decorative Art

Animals in Painting: From Symbolism to Decorative Art

Artists have been incorporating animals into their paintings since the beginning of time. The use of animals as a subject is not only decorative, it also adds a deeper symbolic value and meaning to the painting.

In this article, we will explore two main topics – the significance of animals in paintings and famous paintings that feature animals.

Significance of Animals in Paintings

Animals in paintings have been used as symbols for many different themes. In early Christian art, paintings of Christ with a lamb symbolized Christ’s role as the shepherd of his followers.

Animals have also been used to symbolize human themes such as love, loyalty, and bravery. In fact, animals have been used to encompass a broad range of human emotions, from fury to tenderness.

One notable example of the use of animals in paintings with symbolic meaning is The Unicorn in Captivity, which is part of the Unicorn Tapestries (1495-1505). The tapestries tell the story of a hunt for a unicorn by the hunters of King Ren of Anjou.

The seven tapestries symbolize the Seven Virtues, and the depiction of the unicorn in captivity represents the victory of good over evil. Animals in paintings also bring awareness to environmental issues.

Contemporary artists have used animal imagery to highlight the impact of humans on the environment. Paintings such as the Fox by Franz Marc remind viewers that many species are facing extinction due to human activity and climate change.

Another interesting feature of animals in painting is their role in collaboration with the artists. In many paintings, animals serve as decorative elements that contribute to the overall composition and style of the painting.

In landscape paintings, animals are used to create a sense of movement, depth, and perspective. Mythological paintings frequently feature animals to give the illusion of otherworldly realms.

Famous Paintings of Animals

The Entry of the Animals into Noah’s Ark is a painting by Jan Brueghel the Elder that depicts the biblical story of Noah’s Ark (1613). This painting is a beautiful example of the use of animals in art, and it is currently housed at the J.

Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. The painting shows a wide variety of animals entering the ark, both in the sky and on land.

Brueghel’s use of animals in this painting is both decorative and meaningful, as it tells the story of the salvation of animals during the biblical flood. Another work of art that features animals prominently is The Floating Feather by Melchior d’Hondecoeter.

This painting is part of a series of Dutch animalier paintings that featured birds and exotic species. The Floating Feather is housed at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and is known for its exquisite detail and brilliant use of color.

This breathtaking painting is a wonderful example of how artists use animals to create vibrant and dynamic compositions.


Animals in painting serve to create beautiful and meaningful works of art. From symbolic representations to decorative elements, animals bring life and depth to a painting.

As demonstrated by The Entry of the Animals into Noah’s Ark and The Floating Feather, famous paintings featuring animals can be both decorative and meaningful. Let us admire the many ways animals contribute to the world of art.

Famous Paintings of Animals (Continued)

Art lovers and animal enthusiasts alike have marveled at many famous paintings over the centuries that feature animals prominently. In this article, we bring you two more subtopics that explore some famous paintings that depict animals in varied forms, styles, and contexts.

Napoleon Crossing the Alps by Jacques-Louis David

At the heart of this masterpiece by Jacques-Louis David is Napoleon Bonaparte who is shown atop a powerful war horse while making his way across the snow-capped Alpine mountains. The painting is an iconic piece of art history and is considered one of Napoleon’s most recognizable and famous images.

Commonly referred to as the “First Consul Crossing the Alps,” this piece of art stands out as one of David’s greatest masterpieces. The painting was created in 1801-1805, long before the advent of photography, which also helped coin Napoleon’s image while constructing a heroic narrative about him, implying that the painting was meant to offer a romanticized and idealized version of the reality.

What made the images of Napoleon powerful was his ability to ride a war horse. In the painting, the cavalryman is shown marching forward on a rearing steed, transfixing the viewer with his unwavering gaze.

Napoleon Crossing the Alps is part of a collection of paintings that Napoleon commissioned to decorate his private apartments in the Chteau de Malmaison. The painting changed hands frequently before it arrived at the Louvre Museum, where it is now exhibited.

The Monarch of the Glen by Edwin Landseer

The Monarch of the Glen is an iconic painting that depicts a royal stag amidst a mountainous Scottish landscape. The painting was created in 1851 by the English animal painter Edwin Landseer, who was a prominent member of the Royal Academy.

One of Landseer’s most famous paintings, the Monarch of the Glen, depicts the majestic and powerful red deer stag, which was a symbol of strength, wildness, and freedom. The painting was created at a time when there was a growing interest in the beauty and power of the Scottish landscape and wildlife.

The Monarch of the Glen epitomized the appreciation of the Scottish national identity, and the painting became a symbol of Scottish strength and majesty. It was widely celebrated and became an iconic image, gracing many Highland lodges and castles.

The painting has since lost some of its status and has been the subject of a number of controversies, including its use in advertising campaigns and the sale of a set of prints depicting the image. As a result, the painting has become a valuable national treasure, and efforts have been made to protect its place in Scottish cultural heritage.

Tiger in a Tropical Storm by Henri Rousseau

Henri Rousseau was a French post-Impressionist painter who created some of the most distinctive ‘jungle’ paintings. ‘Tropical Storm with Tiger’ was painted in 1891 and is among his most famous works.

The painting depicts a huge tiger in a stormy jungle, hovering in the foreground amid the raging downpour of water. Rousseau had never been to a tropical region, and hence, depicted the jungle from his imagination.

This painting includes many surreal elements, mesmerizing the viewer with a highly realistic representation of a jungle, which pulses with life. The tiger in the painting is depicted with a fierce expression, as though ready to pounce or take on the storm itself.

This painting holds significance in post-Impressionist art where artists sought ways to reject the tradition of the impressionist movement while pushing the boundaries of their creativity.

Tiger in a Tropical Storm by Henri Rousseau is part of the National Gallery’s extensive collection of post-Impressionist paintings, and it holds a special place in the history of modern art.

Le Chat Blanc by Pierre Bonnard

Le Chat Blanc or The White Cat is a stunning painting that depicts a white cat sitting comfortably on a table in a well-lighted interior. Pierre Bonnard, a member of the post-Impressionist Les Nabis group, painted the work in 1898, during a critical phase of his career.

The painting stands out as a unique representation of the late 19th century; its radical simplicity marks a significant departure from the traditions of the time, and it represents a new kind of painting that celebrates everyday life. Bonnard used bold brushwork and vibrant colors, which make the white cat the focal point of the painting.

The cat stares intently, seemingly observing the viewer with a bright, piercing gaze that captures the essence of the feline character. The painting is tranquil and harmonious, capturing the soothing and peaceful nature of having a furry companion.

In conclusion, the famous paintings of animals have inspired generations of art lovers, animal enthusiasts, and artistic novices alike. The paintings we discussed,

Napoleon Crossing the Alps by Jacques-Louis David,

The Monarch of the Glen by Edwin Landseer,

Tiger in a Tropical Storm by Henri Rousseau and The White Cat by Pierre Bonnard, hold significant value in artistic and cultural history, depicting the power and beauty of animals and the unpredictable power of nature’s elements.

Famous Paintings of Animals (Continued)

Animals as subjects of art can create a unique sense of wonder, nostalgia, and emotional connection with viewers. From pets to wild creatures, artists over time have painted animals in various styles, mediums, and contexts.

In this article, we cover two more subtopics regarding famous paintings of animals to gain insight into the diverse styles and artists that have contributed to this form of artistic expression.

A Friend in Need by Cassius Marcellus Coolidge

One of the most popular and easily recognizable paintings of animals is

A Friend in Need by Cassius Marcellus Coolidge. It is commonly known as Dogs Playing Poker and has become a cultural icon representing the mid-nineteenth century American life.

This kitsch-style painting depicts a group of dogs playing poker at a table, each with a unique characteristic and facial expression. The painting was created as a series of paintings by Coolidge, and it has been reproduced countless times in various forms, more frequently as posters, t-shirts, puzzles, etc.

The painting was originally used by Brown & Bigelow, a publishing company, for advertising cigar products. The artwork has stood the test of time and continues to remain popular among dog lovers and art enthusiasts.

It has become an iconic representation of the vibrant American culture, embodying the laid-back and playful spirit of American society.

Spahi Attacked by a Lion by Georges-Charles Dufresne

Spahi Attacked by a Lion is a painting created by French painter Georges-Charles Dufresne in 1913. The painting depicts a scene where a Spahi soldier, who was a member of the French Army’s African Cavalry Corps, falls to the ground from his horse after being viciously attacked by a lion.

The painting portrays the frantic energy and fear that arise from a sudden encounter with nature’s power. Created using a blend of impressionist and post-impressionist styles, the painting captures the raw intensity of a soldier’s life, the unpredictability of nature, and the power of a wild animal.

The painting has become an emblematic image of the exotic adventure and the bravery of European soldiers in their colonial pursuits. The painting is housed at the Tate Gallery in London, UK, and is considered one of the most outstanding pieces of art in the gallery’s collection.

It stands out for its remarkable design, which successfully blends together the characteristics of realism and post-impressionism.

Cat and Bird by Paul Klee

Cat and Bird is an exquisite painting created by Swiss-German artist Paul Klee in 1928. The artwork is a beautifully rendered work of art that features the titular subjects of the painting – a cat and a bird – in Klee’s signature style.

The piece depicts a cat sitting on the top of a tree, with a bird perched on one of its branches. The painting is part of Klee’s renowned collection, which he created while he was associated with the post-Impressionist group.

In his later years, he used the Japanese woodblock prints as an inspiration, and Cat and Bird is a brilliant example of this. Paul Klee used a range of techniques and media mixed media, watercolours, ink, and oil paints to create a magical and awe-inspiring piece of art.

Cat and Bird is currently housed at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. The painting stands out for its simplicity and minimalist design, yet it is highly expressive, capturing the whimsical and playful nature of animals.

Head of a Dog by Edvard Munch

Edvard Munch’s Head of a Dog is a painting created in 1909, belonging to Expressionism, a modernist movement that aimed to express an emotional experience rather than represent things realistically. The painting is part of a broader series of animal paintings created by Munch in which the animal’s head takes centre stage.

The painting depicts two heads of a dog placed side by side and appears to be inspecting the viewer with a direct gaze reminiscent of a human stare. The painting’s dark shading, loose brushstrokes, and the absence of detail create a mood of unease and melancholy, a well-known mood in Munch’s work.

It is highly reminiscent of his best-known painting, The Scream. The painting comes from the Munch Museum’s collection in Norway.

Head of a Dog is a testament to Munch’s ability to create a strong emotional impact by simplifying the form of the subject and layering it with raw, human emotion, making it an extraordinary example of the power of expressionism.


In conclusion, these famous paintings of animals demonstrate the incredibly diverse range of styles, mediums, and contexts in which animals can feature as subjects of art. From Kitsch paintings like A Friend in Need to post-Impressionist paintings like Cat and Bird, these paintings reflect the impact of cultural, societal, and political contexts on artistic expressions and show how animals have always played a crucial role in human culture and imagination.


Throughout art history, animal paintings have played a significant role in various genres and artistic movements. From symbolism to decorative art, animals have brought depth, meaning, and aesthetic beauty to paintings.

In this article, we explored the significance of animals in paintings and delved into famous artworks that feature animals as prominent subjects. Now, we will delve into the importance of animal paintings as a whole and examine another well-known animal masterpiece.

Importance of Animal Paintings

Animal paintings hold a special place in the realm of art history. They encompass a wide range of genres and styles, from religious symbolism to landscape and portraiture.

The presence of animals in art dates back to ancient times, where they were depicted in cave paintings and ancient Egyptian art. Over time, animals have continued to captivate artists and their viewers, inspiring countless masterpieces.

One of the most popular genres of animal paintings is equine painting. Horses have been a subject of admiration and fascination for centuries, symbolizing nobility, strength, and freedom.

Equine paintings not only capture the physical beauty of horses but also evoke emotions and convey narratives through their presence. Artists like George Stubbs and Rosa Bonheur became renowned for their skillful depictions of horses, breathing life into the canvas.

Animal paintings also showcase the relationship between humans and animals, highlighting our connection with the natural world. They can serve as a reminder of the importance of wildlife conservation and environmental awareness.

By depicting animals in their natural habitats or through symbolic representations, artists raise awareness about their existence and our impact on their survival.

The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius

The Goldfinch is a famous animal portrait painting created by Dutch painter Carel Fabritius in 1654. The small, delicate painting depicts a chained goldfinch perched on a feeder.

The piece is filled with intricate details, highlighting the artist’s ability to capture the bird’s texture, color, and expression. The Goldfinch became more widely recognized in recent years due to the novel of the same name by Donna Tartt and its subsequent film adaptation.

In the story, the painting becomes a significant and symbolic object, tying together themes of loss and redemption. The popularity of the book and film further propelled the recognition and admiration for Fabritius’s masterpiece.

The painting is currently part of the collection at the Mauritshuis museum in The Hague, Netherlands. Its enduring appeal lies in the intimacy and precision captured in its execution, showcasing the beauty of even the smallest creatures and reminding us of the value of nature’s creations.


In conclusion, animal paintings hold significant importance in the world of art. They span various genres, from symbolic representations to portraiture and landscape paintings.

Animal paintings not only enhance the aesthetic value of artworks but also carry deeper meanings, narratives, and emotional connections. The presence of animals in artwork serves as a reminder of our connection to the natural world and highlights the significance of wildlife conservation.

The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius exemplifies the power of animal portraiture and its ability to captivate viewers across different mediums, from painting to literature and cinema. As we continue to appreciate and delve into animal paintings, we honor their contribution to the art world and their everlasting impact on our collective imagination.

Animal paintings have played a significant role in art history, spanning various genres and capturing the beauty, symbolism, and connection between humans and animals. From the use of animals as symbolic representations to their role in decorative art, these paintings hold a deep significance.

We explored famous examples such as The Entry of the Animals into Noah’s Ark and Tiger in a Tropical Storm, among others. These artworks showcase the power of animals in conveying emotions, raising awareness about environmental issues, and evoking awe and admiration.

The enduring popularity of paintings like The Goldfinch emphasizes the lasting impact of animal portraits. As we appreciate and delve into these artworks, we are reminded of our relationship with the natural world and the importance of preserving our diverse animal species.

Animal paintings serve as a powerful reminder of the beauty and connection we share with animals, urging us to protect and cherish them in our ever-changing world.

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