Though this author is quite incapable of painting or drawing, she has a great appreciation for those who can.
While many of us are familiar with at least a few famous painters and their most celebrated works, some of their lesser-known paintings are just as enjoyable, if not more so. And though these revered artists are often known for pieces depicting serious scenes, I find that their usual seriousness only makes their light-hearted works that much more enchanting.
None of this is to say that animal paintings are forcibly merry—as evidenced by awful illustrations of animals in agony (à la Guernica's anguished horse) and others of animals in all their glory (think Landseer's magnificent The Monarch of the Glen)—but I find that even the more somber works below hold at least a touch of whimsy. That being said, most of the paintings on this list range from playful to downright funny. I hope they will surprise and delight you and make you see these distinguished painters in a new light.
1. The Kongouro From New Holland
This painting's majestic backdrop seems to beg for an equally splendiferous subject, and yet its mouselike protagonist is by no means a let-down. Though George Stubbs is most well-known for his horse paintings, equines weren't his sole focus, and this detailed (if slightly erroneous) depiction of a kangaroo delights in its peculiarity.
2. The Steer (The Bull)
Franz Marc, a key player in the Expressionist movements of the early 20th century, painted a wide variety of subjects, from sheaves of wheat and women in flowing garb to weasels. Along with Kandinsky, he founded Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider), a group which favored bold colors, abstract forms, and symbolism as a way to cope with the decadence of the modern world, a feeling heightened by the approach of WWI. This sense of anxiety is purposefully absent in many of Marc's works, and The Steer (The Bull) is no exception. In fact, this image is remarkable in the peace it conveys, especially considering its subject—an animal often depicted in all its muscle-rippling glory. Here we see a sleeping bull almost cat-like in its curled-up position and shocking in its sweetness.
Is there any more mysterious idea for an artist than the conception of how nature is mirrored in the eyes of an animal? How does a horse see the world, or an eagle, or a doe, or a dog?
— Franz Marc
3. Head of a Dog
Munch's The Scream is perhaps one of the world's most famous paintings, right alongside Da Vinci's Mona Lisa and Monet's Water Lillies, which is why this curious painting of a dog's head feels so surprising. Similar elements of style appear in both paintings by Munch, yet whereas The Scream imparts feelings of anxiety, one can't help but chuckle at Head of a Dog. Is that partly because it looks like something a middle schooler might have made with a set of ketchupy finger paints? Absolutely.
4. Two Owls
Though you may know him best for his glorious illustrations of classic fairytales, Doré worked in many mediums and with many subjects. He produced over 100,000 sketches over his lifetime—which is all the more impressive considering he only lived to the age of 50—and is most famous for his engravings. Still, his paintings are no less splendid, and Two Owls is one of my favorites.
If I'm being honest, my favorite aspect of this painting isn't the lush feathers or rich shadows. It's trying to imagine what might have provoked the owls' expressions. While the one in the foreground looks merely taken aback, his companion looks ready to kill. Either that, or he's just seen too much and has a dead-eyed (rather than deadly) look as a result. In any case, Doré knew how to give life to his works.
5. Le chat blanc
Pierre Bonnard, a French post-impressionist painter best known for his intimate depictions of domestic life, outdoes himself with this silly, disproportionate cat. Though its neckless and extremely long-legged physiognomy might seem uncomfortable, this kitty doesn't seem bothered in the slightest.
6. Lying Cow
When you think of Van Gogh, self-imposed earlessness and the swirls and eddies of Starry Night are sure to jump to mind. Be honest, you never imagined one of his works would feature a cow (and a normal-looking cow at that). None of his wild colors or characteristic brushstrokes feature here, which results in a seemingly average painting of an assuredly average cow. And yet . . . it's a Van Gogh, and that alone makes it inherently precious. That's how that works, right?
Van Who? Say It Like the Dutch.
7. Le chat tigre
After Rousseau's abundantly colorful jungle paintings—full of fierce (if occasionally constipated-looking) exotic animals—this odd painting of an ordinary tabby on a pedestal comes as a surprise, but that's what makes it so enjoyable. There is something undeniably pleasing about this corpulent cat. You simply can't help but chuckle when you look into those lopsided eyes. Just don't let him hear you, or he might punch you out with those kitty biceps.
Ah, yes. This tabby's bizarre proportions give Bonnard's white cat a run for its money (though to be honest, my money would be on him; I can't imagine this fellow could run too fast on those stubby little legs).
8. Head of a Dog (Version Two)
Who would've thought dog portraits were such a popular theme among great painters? Personally, I have to give Manet some credit here. He's taken a small dog who appears to have recently been shat on by a bird and given him such lordly stature and poise that he could only be named Sergeant or Duke. (Please disregard the inscription on the top right. There is no possible way this regal canine could go by "Bob.") In spite of the fact that this dog is going through some shit (quite literally), nothing can strip him of his dignity.
9. Heads of Ewes and Rams
Never in my life have I seen such bliss. At least not from so many angles. Madame Bonheur really lived up to her name on this one. Unfortunately, it would appear as though only the rams are enjoying themselves, while the poor ewes look as though they'd rather be elsewhere. Hmm... sound familiar?
10. Gloucestershire Old Spot
Good godDAMN, that's a big pig. Though this piece is sure to evoke an "ew" or "wtf" from a modern-day audience, paintings like this were sought-after status symbols in James Ward's day. There was nothing more emblematic of a farmer's success than the absurd obesity of his animals. As such, particularly massive specimens were put on display by their owners—both in art and real life—as a kind of self-promotion. In fact, the surge in fat animal paintings at the time reflected the start of a very real (and disturbingly long-lasting) effort to breed ever larger livestock.
In any case, Old Spot looks about ready to gobble down anything that gets in his way, be it hog or hominid. Run, you fools!
11. Sitting dog on pillow
This bitch is fabulous, and she knows it. Still, it's rather hard to believe this was painted by the same artist who gave us the shocking L'Origine du monde, no? I suppose even he needed a break from the daring social statements typical of his other works. I must admit, I'm glad. Now I can imagine a Lady and the Tramp-esque romance between this pup and Manet's Bob, spaghetti and all. Thanks, Gustave.