Wildlife features in some of the very earliest of all known art (pre-historic rock and cave art). Although there’s a case to say that the art is really about food more than it is about wildlife. For much of the remaining history of western art, wildlife was largely absent, as a result of the fact that art focused far more on reality and its narrow perspectives, including religion. It’s only been more recently that wildlife art has been more prominent in society, along with the art produced by it, after being liberated from narrow world-views.
This fascinating topic will be split into two parts; the first one focusing more on the roots of the art, while the second part will shed some light on the depiction of animals during the early historical periods.
Wildlife isn’t an easy subject for an artist. Firstly, it isn’t at all easy to find, and secondly, it can at times be impossible to find an animal to remain still long enough to sketch or paint. Due to more recent art forms like photography, this has been made somewhat easier, and wildlife art is now easier to achieve both in terms of aesthetics and accuracy.
In wildlife away from the western world, wild animals have birds have featured more prominently in history. Wild animals in art started in pre-history as a depiction of food sources. The west, at the beginning of history, appeared to have turned its back on nature for long stretches, which is shown in the lack of wildlife art throughout much of its art timeline. However, more recent times have shown us that its truly something spectacular to admire after we were willing to explore parts of the world we’d never seen before.
Pre-historic wildlife art
Bird and animal art is featured among the very earliest known examples of art, such as rock art and cave paintings.
The very earliest cave paintings that we know of date back approximately 40,000 years. These works of art may well have been considered to be decoration as they were often in caves which aren’t easy to access and show no signs of humans having lived there. Wildlife played an important role in human life at that time, particularly when it came to food and hunting, which is shown in the period’s art. Also, religious views on nature were thought to have been a key factor in the depiction of birds and animals.
Possibly the most well-known of any cave painting includes a wild horse in Lascaux, France. Another is of a reindeer in the Cueva de las Monedas in Spain, and likely depicted around the time of the last ice-age. The very oldest cave paintings (possibly dating back 32,000 years) are found at the Grotte Chauvet in France and show mammoth, buffalo, lions, rhinoceros, horses, and humans, who are often shown to be hunting.
Wildlife art is among the more common forms of cave art. Their subjects are often larger wild animals such as deer, bears, lions, aurochs, horses, and bison. People in this era were likely depicting their relation to nature mainly in terms of survival, as opposed to shying away from it. Either way, the primal need to express themselves drew from the surroundings, much like subsequent art forms. And this was the pattern that was followed by different genres ever since.