Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 21, 2008
Mary Morton, ed. Oudry's Painted Menagerie: Portraits of Exotic Animals in Eighteenth-Century Europe Exh. cat. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2007. 166 pp.; 83 color ills.; 33 b/w ills. Paper $39.95 (9780892368891)
Exhibition schedule: Getty Museum, Los Angeles, May 1–September 2, 2007; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, October 7–January 6, 2008; Staatliches Museum Schwerin, April 4–July 6, 2008
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Jean-Baptiste Oudry. Rhinoceros (1749). Oil on canvas. 306 x 453 cm (120 1/2 x 178 3/8 in.). Staatliches Museum Schwerin, Schwerin, Germany, G 1928.

The story behind this unusual, revealing, and enjoyable exhibition and accompanying catalogue begins with the voyage, in May 2003, of a life-size painting, fifteen-feet across, of an exotic, two-ton beast. Rolled up in storage for a century and a half, this all-but-forgotten portrait of a celebrity rhinoceros arrived in Los Angeles that month from the Staatliches Museum Schwerin, in the former German Democratic Republic, to be conserved at the Getty Museum and readied for permanent exhibition back home in Schwerin.

The voyage of the painting mirrors another, earlier voyage—that of the animal herself. Born in India and brought to the Netherlands, Clara, as she came to be affectionately known, captivated viewers across Europe during her many years on public tour in the mid-eighteenth century. The renowned French painter and academician Jean-Baptiste Oudry came under Clara’s spell at the Foire Saint-Germain in Paris in 1749 and painted her portrait, on his own initiative and on an unprecedented scale. The following year, after exhibiting the picture in the Salon du Louvre, Oudry sold it and several others to the Duke of Mecklenburg-Schwerin to be installed in his new picture gallery.

Comes now the latest leg of Clara’s journey—the return to Schwerin after a ceremonial sendoff at the Getty and an intermediate showing in Houston. Companion pictures of wild animals from the original ducal purchase have joined the retinue, thus reconstituting “Oudry’s painted menagerie.”

The exhibition offers a threefold opportunity: to explore anew Oudry’s relations with the court of Mecklenburg-Schwerin (after the French Crown, his most important patron); to gain a better understanding of the paintings themselves; and to recalibrate the place of the artist in the history of French painting a quarter century after the retrospective exhibition devoted to him in 1982–1983. Under the editorial direction of Mary Morton, who also wrote the section on the wild-animal paintings, the elegantly produced catalogue presents essays by Colin Bailey (introduction to Oudry’s art and career), Christoph Frank (Oudry and Schwerin), Marina Belozerskaya (princely menageries), Christine Giviskos (Oudry’s animal drawings), Charissa Bremer-David (the Clara phenomenon in cultural context), and Mark Leonard (restoration of the lion and rhinoceros paintings from Schwerin). Each author makes unique and valuable contributions to the common enterprise.

Oudry’s relations with Schwerin are documented beginning in 1733 and continuing to the purchase of numerous pictures and drawings at the sale after the artist’s death in 1755. Frank reveals many new details from a careful review of the abundant archival material in Schwerin, notably concerning Oudry and the young Crown Prince Friedrich. Of special interest is the series of pen-and-ink outline drawings Friedrich copied from works he saw on his frequent visits to Oudry’s studio. It is not always clear, however, during which of Friedrich’s two Parisian sojourns (1737–1739 and again in 1750) a particular outline drawing was made, or whether it was taken from a painting, a drawing, or even a print. Frank reproduces Friedrich’s copy of a decorative panel with a dead boar and a mastiff pursuing a swan, one of a set of three compositions datable to 1745 (see the discussion under no. 115 of the catalogue of the Oudry exhibition in Paris, Grand Palais, 1982–1983). Frank supposes that Friedrich’s copy was made from an engraving by Gabriel Huquier after the original composition. However, the print is in reverse from Friedrich’s drawing, which strongly suggests that Friedrich was working directly from a model by Oudry and not from the print. Perhaps Frank’s continuing study of the material in Schwerin will some day shed light on the clouded history of this series.

Until relatively recently, Oudry’s drawings in Schwerin have received less attention than the paintings. It has usually been assumed, quite reasonably, that the numerous sheets representing studies of animals were acquired directly from the artist by Prince Friedrich, but the provenance of this group of drawings is undocumented and their attribution history is obscure. As a result, extracting the precious insights they might provide into the hidden world of Oudry’s studio practice can be a perilous exercise. Significant advances toward resolving some of the numerous problems of authorship, identification of subjects, sources (such as the oil studies of Pieter Boel), and purpose were made in the catalogues of two predecessor exhibitions: Jean-Baptiste Oudry, Jean-Antoine Houdon, Vermächtnis der Aufklärung (Staatliches Museum Schwerin, 2000) and Animaux d’Oudry: Collection des ducs de Mecklembourg-Schwerin (Château de Fontainebleau and Château de Versailles, 2003–2004).

The Getty catalogue continues and amplifies these lines of investigation, raising many interesting questions. Take the rather inept chalk drawing of a Porcupine that Frank considers to be “clearly by Oudry himself,” and which he found inserted as a loose sheet in the album of Friedrich’s outline drawings after Oudry, mentioned above. Frank presents it as the model for Friedrich’s pen-and-ink version of the same porcupine in the album. But if this is so, then why does the latter show the animal in much greater detail (for example, the feet complete down to the claws)? Is it not far more likely that both drawings are by Friedrich after a third, unidentified drawing by Oudry, which itself—who knows—might have been done after Boel?

Giviskos sensitively brings to the fore the “great personal, intellectual, and artistic value” that Oudry assigned to his drawings, and the “centrality of drawing to his artistic practice” (75). At one point she mentions the astounding prices brought by some of his highly finished compositional drawings in the years immediately following his death—a fad the connoisseur and Oudry’s contemporary Pierre-Jean Mariette blamed on “persons of limited knowledge (connoissances)” of the true nature of draftsmanship. One of the two drawings that specifically occasioned Mariette’s disdain was a Composition for a Large Picture: Eagles Attacking Swans (probably 1745), shown with several other drawings by Oudry on an equal footing with his paintings in the Salon of 1753. Although Giviskos considers this drawing to be “unlocated,” in fact it reappeared a dozen years ago and was published soon thereafter (exhibition catalogue Mastery and Elegance: Two Centuries of French Drawings from the Collection of Jeffrey E. Horvitz, Cambridge, MA: Fogg Art Museum, 1998). Charged with the rhetorical energy of opposing compositional rhythms and zones of light and shadow, Eagles Attacking Swans is a dynamic, breathtaking display of the artist’s command of a plenitude of the traditional means of draftsmanship. What Mariette disliked about such drawings, at least in part, must have been their lack of restraint. Economy of medium, and paper left bare, were more to his taste.

The other pictures of wild animals purchased for Schwerin in 1750, at the same time as the Rhinoceros, were originally commissioned from Oudry by François Gigot de La Peyronie, the king’s surgeon, “to compose a series of natural history for His Majesty’s botanical garden,” but remained unclaimed and unpaid for at La Peyronie’s death in 1747. After much chasing about the tent, scholarly consensus now seems to have been reached that La Peyronie meant for the pictures to go to the Jardin du Roi in Paris—although, as Bailey rightly cautions, this supposition is purely speculative. The intended scheme, whatever it may have been, gained no traction outside La Peyronie’s head.

The Getty exhibition is the culmination of a long process of rehabilitation for the menagerie pictures that began with the 1982–1983 retrospective, where the beautifully restored Indian Blackbuck (1739), Male Leopard (1741), and Dead Crane (1745) were much admired. The catalogues of these and other exhibitions along the way have opened up a wealth of understanding about the pictures and their significance that could barely have been anticipated a generation ago. In some instances these insights are due to an informed examination of the physical evidence, as in Leonard’s observation that the linen canvas of the Rhinoceros is unsized, and indeed had been washed prior to stretching to remove the manufacturer’s sizing, just as Oudry stipulated in one of his academic lectures. Or, on another level, this fine piece of zoological characterization from Bremer-David:

Oudry’s unparalleled portrait communicates the impressive volume and mass of the rhino, the folds and textures of its thick skin, the sensitivity of its prehensile upper lip, the alert tension of its ears held upright, and its three-toed, padded hooves. . . . No other portrayal of the rhinoceros embodied, to this extent, the essential empirical experience demanded by Enlightenment principles. (98, 100)

Without a doubt, as Morton asserts, “Oudry’s empiricism was central to his artistic philosophy” (120). How refreshing to see the whole question of empiricism restored to respectability after its long banishment from the critical project!

No less a part of the Enlightenment mentality is a sense of wonder and delight in nature’s inexhaustible variety, superbly manifested in the menagerie series. Oudry painted the Cassowary (1745) with such detachment and scruple that it could honorably serve as a “scientific” illustration in a twenty-first-century field guide—and yet, in the Salon livret, he describes with great relish how this dangerously powerful, 125-pound, flightless bird “will swallow anything it is given, even glowing coals,” an apocryphal belief that would seem more at home in a medieval bestiary.

The Dead Crane depicts another species of unusual stature, the Sarus crane. Six-feet tall and with a wingspan of eight feet, it is considered to be the tallest of all flying birds. Oudry probably painted it dead in order to be able to display the magnificent underwing plumage to full advantage; at the same time this choice enabled him to create a graceful composition in a compact format while still depicting the bird nearly life size. Recent commentary on the picture has focused on what Morton calls its “melancholic, even tragic” tone (138). One easily accedes to her reading of the bird’s posture as “a sort of dying gesture of surrender, as if this were a scene of human martyrdom” (138). Indeed, the strongest resonances are with traditional representations of the Descent from the Cross, the ultimate Christian memento mori, wedding a quality of what might be called Enlightenment mysticism to the picture’s blend of the marvelous and of empirical “truth.”

Bailey gives a further example of Oudry’s grounding in the academic narrative tradition with his deft unmasking of the Demoiselle Crane, Toucan, and Tufted Crane (1745) as “strutting deities awaiting the judgment of an ornithological Paris” (16). No less apt is the interpretation by an anonymous viewer (opie. Art Blog. August 23, 2007. [Cited May 21, 2008] Available from: http://www.artblog.net/?name=2007–08–22–11–48–oudry) of these three birds as a “vaudeville routine”—a performance genre with roots in the parade of Italian comedians of the street fairs familiar to Oudry and his other public, outside the walls of the academic establishment. Offstage, the two cranes have been identified to species, but the toucan remains unclassified. Clearly it is of the genus Ramphastos, but the dull brownish bill is problematic, as all of the three or four candidate species have vividly colored, boldly patterned bills. Bird skins preserved for study are prone to loss of natural coloration over time, especially the bare parts such as feet and bills, which raises the possibility that the toucan Oudry painted (likely through the intermediary of a Boel oil study) was not a live bird but a mounted specimen.

At the Grand Palais in 1982, time and again visitors stepping into the gallery where the Male Leopard was displayed stopped stock-still to stare at it in wonderment. Partly this was due to the convincing representation of anatomy and the illusionism of light and shadow that make it seem as if the beast is ready to spring from its frame; partly, too, Oudry engineered this reaction through his practiced manipulation of the histrionic ruses we now associate with the art of the circus poster. His portrayal of the animal in a plunging view with its tail twisting above its back—a well-worn formula in East Asian art for depictions of big cats (usually tigers)—delivers an additional exotic thrill.

Above all, though, Oudry commands our attention through his ability to endow his animals with a range of emotions with which we human viewers instantly sympathize. He knew exactly what he was doing. Even though it reflects the long-since discredited doctrine of the humors as codified by Charles Le Brun, Oudry’s transfer of human emotions to animals still “works” on viewers today. How can this be, when the same modern viewers are not taken in for a second by the contrived expressions of Le Brun’s grand-manner history paintings? Using the Male Leopard as an illustration, Martin Kemp (“Science in Culture,” in Nature 427 [29 January 2004]) offers a convincing explanation. Far from being outmoded, Kemp argues,

[Oudry’s anthropomorphism is] not unrelated to Darwin’s seminal book, The Descent of Man. . . . Although Darwin was sharply critical of Le Brun’s formulaic tendencies, he did insist on the underlying universality of expressive mechanisms, many of which have survived in humans divorced from their functional contexts. Oudry’s common factor was the doctrine of the humours; Darwin’s was the descent of man from animals. Like all great artists, Oudry achieves an insight that transcends the doctrines of his times. (398)

Bailey is fully justified in asserting that “Oudry’s preeminence in the contemporary visual culture . . . was unquestioned” by the middle of the eighteenth century. But his further observation that “modern scholarship has not considered this to be an altogether appropriate role for a mere animal painter to play” does not go far enough (1). Many of Oudry’s contemporaries felt the same way. Then as now, critical discourse made a distinction between ignorants and connoisseurs within the rapidly expanding public for art. Oudry was keenly attuned to this divide and not above exploiting it. At the Salon of 1750, how must that in-your-face, life-size rhinoceros—a street-fair attraction!—have affronted the personal dignity of visitors possessed of a deep respect for academic préséance! “No matter which way one turns at the Salon there are always animals in view,” remarked a critic a few years later, barely concealing his antipathy not just for Oudry’s paintings, but also—even more, perhaps—for the crowds of ignorants who viewed them with such uncomplicated pleasure. The Getty got the message. The “Claramania” publicity for the exhibition, including the full-color, double-page rhino ad in the New York Times, pushes all the same buttons Oudry already knew how to push. The exhibition and its catalogue make an outsize contribution toward decoding the artistic DNA of this underestimated, fascinating, provocative master who still has so much to show us about the complexities of his art and of the times in which he lived.

Hal Opperman
Professor Emeritus of Art History, School of Art, University of Washington Seattle

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.