Artists have been depicting animals for millennia. For example, the donkey and the ox in nativity scenes, or the snake in depictions of the Fall of Man. However, animals have rarely played the lead role in works of art. Horses have played the role of servant in nearly every painting they have featured in, either dragging a plough or carrying their master. Napoleon’s horse, for example, has graced countless artworks, yet how many people know its name? Sometimes, animals are simply part of the background, like a tree or a rock. After all, who would refer to Barend Cornelis Koekkoek as an animal artist rather than a landscape artist?
One exception to this rule is Paulus Potter. In his work, animals play the central role rather than appearing simply as extras. Potter was the first Dutch painter who depicted cattle in a context that was not biblical, mythological or anecdotal. Another example of an animal painter is Henriëtte Ronner-Knip. She was a Dutch-Belgian artist who specialised in romanticist animal portraits. She is particularly renowned for her paintings of cats.
Koekkoek, Potter en Ronner-Knip are all artists whose choice of subject matter greatly appeals to me. In my work, the relationship between humans and animals is a constant yet indirect element. This relationship is often an interesting one. As a child, I thought it was strange that my grandfather so lovingly tended to his cattle, but would also catch and kill moles for their fur. When I was allowed to accompany him, I would intentionally stamp hard on the ground so the moles would escape.
Another thing that I thought strange was that every year, one of my grandfather’s cows was slaughtered so that the family would have meat for the year. However, years later, when my grandfather sold the farm and all of the animals, he sought out the very best places for his cows to go. He refused to sell them to any farmer who did not refer to them by their names or who beat their cattle.
The relationship between man and beast also has strong cultural links. In the western world, for example, dogs and cats are regarded as house pets, while in other cultures, they are reared for food. We find this strange and unacceptable, although a Hindu would think the same about some dutch eating cows. For Hindus, cows are sacred and slaughtering one would be unthinkable.
My own feelings on this matter are also contradictory. I have my own kitchen garden and I kill the insects on my lettuce. And the fact that I use a biodegradable pest-control agent is of little comfort to the pests! However, despite all this, animal welfare is highly important to me. As a twelve-year-old, I would draw bloody foxes with the words ‘no to fur’, and place these pictures everywhere. Years later, I would paint exotic animals such as the endangered Siberian tiger.
I eventually moved from the city back to the countryside. When I saw that the village in which I grew up was now home to a factory farm, I realised that it was not only faraway animals that needed protecting. It’s just that some farmers see their cattle as nothing more than a product, and it just doesn’t have to be that way.
You could say that upon my return to the countryside. Since this time, cows have featured prominently in my artwork, although little by little, other farm animals have come into the foreground.
Happily, I see that more and more people are realising that animal welfare is an important issue, especially in our consumer-based society. It is therefore puzzling to me why animals are still not taken seriously within today’s art movement. After all, isn’t art supposed to mirror what happens in the world around us? It is for this reason that I feel compelled to paint animals.
And in case you were wondering, Napoleon’s horse was called Marengo.