Morgan exhibit explores evolution of animals in art

Omnis mundi creatura
Quasi liber et pictura
Nobis est et speculum.

Every creature of the world
Is like a book and a picture
To us and a mirror.

-Alan of Lille (Twelfth Century)

An exhibit at the Morgan Library & Museum in New York considers the role of animals in art from the crude figures scrawled on cylinder seals in Mesopotamia to the evocative line drawings of cartoonist Charles Schultz and his canine muse, Snoopy. 

"In the Company of Animals: Art, Literature and Music at the Morgan" - which runs through May 2 - brings together the work of illustrators and painters, musicians and authors, to show the complex relationship between humans and animals over time.

We may think we are more aware today of the effect of the natural world on us but the exhibit reminds us that thoughtful people of earlier generations thought deeply about animals too.

Consider Homer. In the Odyssey he writes about Odysseus's dog Argos who holds onto life "infested with ticks, half dead with neglect," just long enough to greet his master after his epic 20-year journey.

There is Mother Goose and Aesop that gave us the timeless sayings "sly as a fox," "wolf in sheep's clothing" and "belling the cat." There is the work of the painter Delacroix and the composer Debussy. We meet the animals in Pink Floyd's album art and those woven through Harry Potter stories.

There is an 18th century Persian manuscript with colorful animal drawings and the manuscript of E.B. White's children's classic "Trumpet of the Swan."

(See the New York Times slideshow here.)

The New York Times critic Edward Rothstein writes that the exhibit's curator, Clara Drummond, has brought together works that capture moments of "recognition and interaction between animals and humans."

Those moments can be heartwarming and heartcrushing, moments of delight and deep sorrow.

The show will not permit us simply to embrace a Romantic, pastoral landscape full of peaceful creatures far more natural than venal humanity. That fantasy is now generally left for the terrain of human infants, whose cribs are lined with stuffed animals. More often, here, we find the opposite. Animals are partly seen as human because they reflect us at our worst.

The pioneering artist and naturalist, John James Audubon, found solace in painting a young rabbit on "one of the days of deepest sorrow I have felt in my life.”

That morning his daughter-in-law Eliza had died.


(Photo/John James Audubon (1785–1851)
Gray Rabbit: Old male, female, and young, 1841
Watercolor and graphite, with gouache
Photo/Graham S. Haber)