Thursday, April 25, 2024

The Morgan Library looks at Animals


Pet Lizard by Beatrix Potter


Artists have always found interest in animals. Whether it is painting their dead bodies in still life, trying to portray them in their natural environment, or anthropomorphizing them in stories, animals have been in art since the days of cave paintings. There are currently two exhibits at the Morgan Library and Museum, in New York City, offer a wonderful comparison of the ways this has happened during the past 150 years.

The Morgan Library and Museum began as the personal library of John Pierpont Morgan (1837-1913). He collected rare books, illustrated manuscripts, drawings and prints. In 1924, eleven years after his death, his son J.P. Morgan Jr., transformed his collection into a public research library. Over the past 100 years the mission has expanded to include a lot more art, and there are now four galleries in the campus. 


The current exhibits offer an interesting contrast into the ways that animals have been presented in art. The main galleries host an extensive show of paintings and drawings by Beatrix Potter (1866-1943). Mrs. Potter is best known as the author and illustrator of Peter Rabbit, along with her “Little Books”, a collection of 23 children’s stories, all featuring animals as their main characters. The books have beautiful illustrations of the animals, looking natural, while acting in a human manner.

Benjamin Bunny and Son Greengrocers

Unauthorized (left) and official (right) versions of Peter Rabbit

Chintz featuring Potter's characters


While half of the exhibit is made of works that are part of her world of animals, the other half is dedicated to the paintings and drawings that she worked on privately, starting at an early age. By the time she was eleven, she was creating detailed studies of animals that rivaled those made scientists much older than her. Beatrix was a prolific artist, and most of her work features the natural world around her family’s summer home, and of the pets and animals in her life. Looking at her early work, it is clear where she developed the skills and style she used in her books. Her pictures are soft, and her animals are all cuddly and cute.

Still life of shells, seaweed and Japanese netsuke mask

Corner of Schoolroom

Magnified Studies of Carabus Nemoralis (at age 11)

Studies of a Rabbit's Head

Strobilomuces Strobilaceus


While Beatrix Potter’s artwork offers a peaceful, bucolic version of the lives of the characters in her books, Walton Ford (b. 1960) has a very different point of view. His paintings, which range from realistic to almost hallucinatory, are used on real or imagined stories where wild animals interact with people. One series on display is based on an event in which a black panther escaped from a zoo in Zurich. The panther was loose in the area for ten weeks before being shot and eaten by a local farmer. Another set was inspired by the escape of eight lions when a circus caravan was hit by a trolley in Leipzig.

Die Ziege


Study for Flucht

Study for Leipzig


This exhibit also includes Ford’s choice of paintings of animals created by other artists from the Morgan’s collection.

Eastern Gray Squirrel by James Audubon

The Elephant Dalbādel Chasing His Trainer by Anon.


Together, these two exhibits offer an interesting juxtaposition of ways that wild animals are presented in art.

Nuts and Bolts

  • The Morgan Library is located at 225 Madison Ave, NY, NY
  • It is open Tuesday- Sunday 10:30 AM - 5 PM (7 PM on Friday)
  • Entrance fee - $25 Adults / $17 Seniors / $13 Students / 12 and under are free.

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