May/june 1990 | Volume 41, Issue 4
Some of the most compelling subjects in American sculpture aren’t statesmen, or generals, or nudes—in fact, they aren’t even human
For much of their history Americans have demanded that art be both ennobling and democratic—morally uplifting and at the same time accessible to a wide audience. Many of the murals and monuments created with thest ideals in view seem sentimental or clichéd today, with the marked exception of animal sculpture. The best examples of this seemingly minor genre have an energy and originality often missing from more conventional statuary.
Sculptors who chose animals as their subject were building on a long tradition. In prehistoric carvings and cave paintings, the images that take pride of place are those of animals, and throughout recorded history there have been animals both wild and domestic in art. They may be symbols of divinity, as in ancient Egypt and the Near East, or figures of humor, as in some Chinese and Japanese art. But once Greece and Rome placed man at the center of things, animals tended to be downplayed or made into monsters. And so it went in European art as long as it centered on religious imagery.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Western art took on secular subjects, and animals again became worthy of study, first as accessories in equestrian paintings and sculptures and eventually in their own right. In France a genre of sculptors called animaliers came into being, most prominent among them Antoine-Louis Barye. These artists explored animal subjects with the same passion for the exotic and scientific that had led to the rise of zoos. In fact, many artists in Paris honed their knowledge of animal anatomy at the menagerie of the Jardin des Plantes. Still, in European art, animals tended to remain symbolic—the noble lion, the faithful canine, the evil snake.
American artists around the turn of the century embraced most trends coming out of France, but the fashion of animal sculpture translated especially well to this continent. Statues of buffaloes and mustangs satisfied the requirement that art serve some purpose, because they celebrated the nation’s pioneering spirit and native fauna. In this century animal sculpture has been more stylized, even humorous, without losing any of its appeal.
While many of the finest examples of animal sculpture have ended up in the nation’s art museums, others, like Edward Kemeys’s Still Hunt (see opening pages), remain in the comparative wilds of parks and gardens, where they draw added strength from their surroundings and where the casual passerby becomes their ideal audience.