I was recently challenged by Tamar Avishai of the art history podcast The Lonely Palette to write a blog post inspired by her recent episode on C. M. Coolidge’s Dogs Playing Poker, the famous series of paintings of dogs playing poker (she herself was challenged by a listener). Her episode is a great exploration of kitsch in art history and you should definitely check it out!
When thinking about how to approach this truly beautiful challenge, I was inspired to focus on one of my favourite things: animals in art history. Specifically, animals acting like humans in art history. This is a theme that reoccurs again and again, across cultures. Why is it so popular? What are these artworks saying about society? How cute are the animals in them? To start to answer these questions, I’ve compiled a short list, in no particular order, of animals acting like humans in art history below.
1. Animals playing poker
Dogs Playing Poker actually refers to a whole series of eighteen paintings by American artist C. M. Coolidge, all painted between 1894 and 1910. The one above is the first one, The Poker Game from 1894, but perhaps the most famous one is A Friend in Need (top of this post) from 1903. As Tamar explains in her episode on the subject, this series has become emblematic of ridiculously kitschy, fun art. In the early 1900s, promotional company Brown and Bigelow commissioned Coolidge to create a series of anthropomorphised dogs for their ads. These became extremely popular. Then, in the 1970s, they experienced a comeback, as people embraced their kitschy appeal and they were endlessly reproduced. This was when they became, as Tamar puts it, ‘the Mona Lisa of kitsch’.
Of course, with these endless reproduction, the Dogs Playing Poker paintings were also endlessly parodied and copied, often with other animals playing poker. Just google ‘animals playing poker’ to see the wide range you can find, from dolphins to dragons. It’s a motif in and of itself at this point. Dogs Playing Poker might not receive much respect from people who don’t consider it traditional fine art, but it can’t be denied that it was a highly important moment in art history and one of the most recognisable images in today’s popular culture.
The singerie (san-jeh-ree) genre, from the French word singerie meaning “monkeying about” (singe means monkey), basically consisted of comical paintings of monkeys dressed in human clothes or doing human things. Although images of monkeys acting like animals have existed for hundreds of years (like in Ancient Egypt and medieval Europe), singerie refers to a distinct pictorial genre that became popular in Flemish painting during the 16th–17th centuries. It then spread to France and other places in Europe in the 18th century, and was still very popular up until the 19th century.
These paintings were specifically about satirising modern society, with the monkey popular as a figure that saw itself ‘above’ the rest of the animal kingdom. In France, the figure of the singe peintre (monkey painter) was used to parody artists themselves.
Singerie sometimes involved other animals acting as humans, especially cats, in the scenes, such as the wonderful Barbershop with monkeys and cats (1633–1667) by Abraham Teniers:
3. Ukiyo-e cats
This category is a favourite of mine. Ukiyo-e refers to the very popular ukiyo-e woodblock prints that were produced in Japan during the Edo period (1615–1867). Because they were prints and not paintings, and because a merchant class developed in Japan with expendable income, these prints were mass produced and often featured subjects that were fashionable, popular, and relatable. Just like today, cats fit all of these criteria. Here is a great article summarising the different types of ways cats were portrayed in Ukiyo-e prints. What I’m interested in here, however, is when cats were portrayed as people in these prints.
Just like the singerie images, these ‘cat as people’ prints were fun, witty, and were sometimes satirising or commenting on modern society. They also parodied or referenced Japanese folktales and literature. They were even a way to sidestep censorship. The below print, for example, show cats representing famous kabuki actors in the mid-19th century. The government banned or censored pictures of actors and courtesans during this time, so artists used cats to get around these rules.
I want to highlight Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1798–1861) here, who was one of the most prolific cat artists in history. He’s a must-know artist if you’re into cats (as I am). He loved cats and his studio was often filled with them, and he portrayed them in every which way in his prints. Many of these were ‘cats as people’ prints, including cats representing kabuki actors, Japanese folktale characters, and scenes of contemporary society. The one below, for example, shows three cats playing a game at a party:
4. Concerts of birds
By ‘concerts of birds’, I’m referring to a strange recurring motif in Flemish 17th century art of birds sitting in the treetops and singing off a piece of sheet music. The birds seem to always be of many different species (sometimes, as in Jan van Kessel’s painting below, bats are apparently involved too). They became popular in aristocratic and bourgeois circles in Northern Europe and then in Spain.
In the Middle Ages, the concert of birds motif was linked to the Franciscan order; to representations of the birds of St. Francis of Assisi, associated with the worship of the Virgin Mary as Our Lady of the Birds. These 17th century versions of the motif might have drawn on this tradition, but probably don’t have any religious meaning; instead, the theme seems to have been taken from Aesop’s fable The Owl and The Birds. The paintings are also very ornamental, showing off lots of beautiful bird species, and were likely used as decorative panels.
The ‘concert of birds’ paintings could also have symbolically alluded to harmony and balance with nature. In this way, the concert of birds imagery could have reflected the political harmony and social order enjoyed by the aristocratic and bourgeois owners of these paintings.
(Before we move on, I’d be doing you all a disservice if I didn’t mention that there’s also a trend of concerts of cats.)
5. Tigers smoking pipes
This motif comes from Korean art history. In Korean folk tales, it’s common to begin the tale with the words “back when tigers smoked pipes”—sort of like “once upon a time” in English. Although they no longer exist there, tigers have been incredibly important and even sacred creatures in Korean myths and folklore for hundreds of years.
In many traditional Korean paintings (and jars), you can find depictions of tigers smoking long pipes. Sometimes the tigers wear hats, and sometimes they’re accompanied by white rabbits who hold up the pipe. Sometimes they are depicted beneath a tree with magpies in it. Often they are smiling.
While many of the other examples I’ve looked at in this post show animals as humans because it’s satirical, or cute, or funny, the tigers in Korean paintings were human-like because of their presence in Korean folk religion and mythology. In most stories, tigers were highly anthropomorphic and even godlike, assuming human behaviour or appearance.
The motif of the smoking tiger seems to indicate this ‘humanness’ of the tiger. Scholar Edward R. Canda theorises that the meaning could be dual: there are associations of respectability (with older people smoking long-stemmed pipes as a way of relaxing) and associations of mischief (with younger people smoking), drawing on the tiger’s characterisation as a clever trickster.
As for the presence of hares holding up the tigers’ pipes: In Korean folklore, it seems that the hare is the one animal that can see through the tiger’s tricks and turn them back on him. In this blog post, the author describes the reason the hare is holding up the pipe to the tiger as ‘the rabbits don’t want the tiger to eat them’. There’s also a humorous element, as art historian Yeol-su Yoon suggests: the sight of a tiger smoking a long pipe held up by a hare rather than eating the hare can be seen as quite bizarre.
As for the pairing of the tiger and the magpies, this is an established motif in Korean painting called Jakhodo. According to this book on traditional Korean painting by the Korea Foundation, the reasons for this pairing lies in the magpie’s role as messenger of the shrine deities who oversee human fortune and misfortune, and the tiger’s role as a messenger for the mountain deities. The fact that the tigers are often smiling, meanwhile, seems to be a way to soften the image of the otherwise dangerous tiger. Canda suggests that evil-repelling images of tigers often smile and are humorous and playful in appearance.
As always, I want to open this post up my readers, especially as I love finding different ways that animals are depicted in art history! What animals-as-human depictions have you seen? (Also, does anyone have more information on the smoking tiger motif?) Feel free to contact me or comment below and I might add them to the post!