Paintings of animals

Animals in our unlikeness

The half-light of the corridor makes things difficult to see, but I discern a solitary lizard. As I move further down the hallway, I see three ostriches, two cranes, and the head of a camel. Despite darkness, the animals’ movements and forms are obvious.

Pieter Boel, "Lizard," oil on canvas, Louvre, Paris

The animals are sketches by the Louis XIV court artist Pieter Boel (1626-1674), exhibited on the second floor of the Richelieu wing at the Louvre. I first discovered Boel in a book and am surprised to see the actual drawings at the Louvre.

Boel revolutionized the art of drawing animals by abandoning the practice of drawing stuffed animals. Instead, Boel created a studio at Versailles, where he drew the court menagerie of exotic animals. These menageries, the prototype of the modern zoo, were the amusement of royalty.

Looking at Boel’s work, I think about how some artists are compelled to draw animals and wonder if the artist creates out of a love for animals. When Adriaen van Utrecht, the Flemish Baroque painter, was asked why he drew birds, he stated, “I know birds.” He didn’t say that he loved birds; he just knew them.

Like anything else in art or life, the artist rarely chooses his or her subject, no more than deciding the medium in which to work — did I really chose printmaking as my medium?

Choosing and being chosen

I inhabited the illusionistic space of my monoprints and paintings for many years with chairs, yet I don’t “love” chairs. Visual imagery from the world asserts itself upon me without warning, disallowing my control over its influence and forcing me to ask, “Do I choose anything in my art?” Do I even choose the pencil I pick up, or does the creative process demand the pencil’s use by me?

A number of years ago, I was walking on the Cornell campus and came across a building’s atrium housing about 200 mounted birds in glass cases. Unlike Boel, who was interested in an animal’s movement, I seem to be compelled by the opposite — the birds’ stillness, heightened by the glass cases in which they were placed. Both the birds and the glass cases created an uncanny stillness of encasement that suggested no living place and only a trace of being.

Prior to seeing the birds in glass cases, I was not particularly interested in birds and was not a bird-watcher. These birds were different. These birds appeared bound to the Earth and haunted by the sky.

Later, when my sister learned that I was drawing birds, she commented upon freedom and birds. I responded, “No, no, no, not freedom,” not knowing exactly why, but thinking of the birds in the cases, or the birds whose size suggest flight as a burden, or the birds who broke their necks encountering my windows, who are now lying next to the dead chicken in my freezer.

The intersection of science and art

The encased birds led me to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and, despite my lack of interest in depicting scientific accuracy, I am passionate about drawing the Lab’s specimens. At the Lab of O, I find myself at the intersection of science and art.

While drawing a crane in the mammal room, Charles, a scientist, looks at my drawing and informs me, “You already drew that bird.” I could remind Charles that Pierre Bonnard made numerous paintings of his wife in the bathtub; so many that Murray Dessner, my painting instructor, would say, “She must have been a prune.” But I don’t. Instead, I say, “Well, maybe this one I will draw into an Italian landscape.” My answer not only doesn’t mollify Charles’s concern, it raises another — he asks in disbelief, “Doesn’t it bother you that this bird has never been in Italy?!”

Despite our different orientations, Charles and I seem to be on the same page when looking at the artwork hanging on the walls at the Lab: We like similar art and we hate similar art, albeit for different reasons.

One of the artists represented on the walls at the Lab is Louis Agassiz Fuertes (1874-1927), an ornithologist who taught at Cornell and an artist who, like Boel, drew living birds rather than taxidermy. Fuertes spent a lifetime illustrating birds for guidebooks, creating visual information to educate birders and scientists on different species.

It is not uncommon for a person to view the detail in this bird art and conclude that it must be great art. Detail in drawings often impresses my prison art students. I ask them, “What is the difference between an illustration and a work of fine art?” And, “Does the fact that something is drawn to look exactly like it is ‘supposed to’ guarantee its authenticity of being art?”

An illustration is for showing what something “is.” It is a depiction of a something, whether that something is a sentimental depiction, an educational depiction, or a depiction to get someone to buy something. There is no room for ambiguity; there is no choice for the viewer but to accept or dismiss. There is an assumption that the artist knows what it “is” — he or she is an authority of is-ness.

Moving past the intersection

Despite the fact that Fuertes was known for his guidebooks, the educational depictions of birds, he understood the difference between his work as an illustrator and art.

There is a painting by Fuertes at the Lab of O of a wounded owl that strikes me. Although it is still tightly painted in an illustrative style and is clearly identifiable as a wounded owl, there is something different in it than Fuertes’s other paintings. It has a presence that cannot be explained and that caught me up short when I saw it. In reading the card to the side of the painting, I get my answer.

The card quotes Fuertes: “This is the way I really like to paint. I’m going to do more of it from now on.” I assume Fuertes wanted to move away from the didactic and informational drawing of bird guides, to explore that which can never be known — the experience of a living bird. Unfortunately, he died in a car accident shortly thereafter.

This “living-ness” of animals through art can be experienced not as a sum of the facts, but as mystery, like a Georganna Lenssen painting in which we see only through a glass darkly. We see through a glass that refuses to let us undermine the animal with simple-minded statements that diminish the mysterious gap separating us from animals: Statements that suggest, “Oh, you capture its likeness” or “You capture its emotions”; statements forcing animals to fit, if not into our likeness, at least into our understanding. Art reducing the animals to something we can understand and then tolerate.

I do not want the facts. I want to sit among the animals and draw, seeking the infinite experience of the unknown otherness, and through an otherness that I will never know, experience infinity in the ordinary.


Above right: Louis Agassiz Fuertes, Wounded Owl, oil, 1925, Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Above left: Georganna Lessen, Ravens, oil on canvas.

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