Animals have a longstanding relationship with the fine and decorative arts. From claw-footed Chippendale furniture to William Wegman's photographs of weimaraners, animals have attracted and encouraged artists, designers and collectors for centuries.
Since ancient times, animals have been highlighted in art and antiques. Sculptures of cats were found in the tombs of ancient Egypt, paintings of dogs were hung next to portraits of kings and queens, and birds were traditionally represented on objects from Greek vases to Empire high-style sofas.
Their presence in art and antiques speaks volumes if you know the lingo.
For instance, dogs were commonly painted into Renaissance wedding portraits as symbols of fidelity (that's how we get the name "Fido" from the latin word, fides) in marriage.
In the 18th century, high-style portraits of children regularly featured a pet cat or bird.
Cats are associated with guardianship, which is one reason why they are pictured with children.
And birds suggest the free-spirited nature of childhood. In the 18th and 19th centuries, artists would be commissioned to paint portraits of wealthy children in their surroundings or on the estates of their families. Children and their pets would be pictured in lush landscapes or in vast mansion interiors.
Bears and bulls
Bears and bulls share associations with the stock market and also are featured in art and in antiques.
For example, in the tumultuous 19th century, American side chairs were enhanced with horns to highlight the back or crest rail and throw rugs are made from bear skins. The bear is thought to represent primal power and gentle strength.
The bull overall signifies wealth and kingship. In the 1700s, Kings Louis XIV and Louis XV often were pictured wearing a cape of animal fur.
And, in France, the floors of the Palace at Versailles were covered in skins from the hunt. Just like our own pets, it is a good rule of thumb that if an animal is found on a work of art or an antique, that means that piece is something special.
In antiques, particularly of the 19th century, carved animal imagery can be found on a wide variety of captain's chairs, dining room tables, headboards of beds, mirror surrounds and the list goes on.
Aesthetic movement furniture from the latter part of the 1800s often is enhanced with numerous images of exotic animals like monkeys, snakes and other creatures.
Art nouveau pieces not only focus on the organic forms from nature but also highlight designs that feature elongated versions of forest animals like deer, squirrels and rabbits.
Butterflies and bugs
Of course, fine artists and designers in the history of art and antiques did not overlook creatures of the insect world in their compositions and constructions.
For instance, insects were the subject for such fine antiques as Italian side tables, miniature French sculpture in the "animalier" tradition (depicting creatures with precise realism), and even Louis Comfort Tiffany-stained glass lamps.
Some of the most commonly seen insects are bees, butterflies and dragonflies.
For some of us, these interesting insects housed temporarily in a jar were our first pets.
Bees, butterflies and dragonflies, in artistic terms, refer to immortality, rebirth and the power of the supernatural. Big ideas to contemplate over dinner as these colorful insects often decorate fine china services.
When it comes to art and antiques, animal imagery (and even actual pets) is a desired and lively addition to any decor.
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