We all know that the first recorded human paintings were of animals. The famous cave paintings of France and the ancient Indian cave paintings were all wildlife paintings pictures of nature, pictures of the animals people hunted and the animals that hunted them.
It seems that we have been fascinated by the grace, the power and the beauty of nature ever since we first found the ability to express ourselves in pictures.
It s interesting that many of the animals we choose to represent are dangerous. The tiger and the lion routinely appear in wildlife paintings, even those painted by people who ve never been to India or Africa. The elephant is another favoured subject. And wolves, originally the preserve of Native American art, have been adopted by New Age and Gothic artists both as symbols of power and beauty.
In many of our wildlife paintings we seem to equate beauty and danger. The tiger, for example, is an extraordinary animal, to look at and to paint a living flame, every inch of whose appearance reminds us that the natural world is the repository of all true beauty. And the lion, long dubbed the king of beasts, is invariably painted in noble posture, looking almost as though ready for coronation.
Another strong theme in wildlife paintings is that of kinship, or perhaps usefulness. Just as we routinely paint animals that would be dangerous to us, so we like to represent those we find useful. Hence the horse and the dog both figure as largely in modern wildlife art as they did in prehistoric cave paintings.
Wherever an animal has had a measurable influence on the course of human civilisation, it seems, our paintings are there to immortalise it.
Of course wildlife paintings aren t always specifically filled with animals and they don t have to be literally representational either. Picasso s Guernica, for example, strikingly captures the essence of man s relationship with both animals and war in a distinctly non-representational form; while plenty of modern wildlife art is as much about the planet we re destroying as it is about the animals that live in and on it.
All painting, all art, is designed to elicit a sympathetic response by which we mean a response in which echoes of shared feeling exist. And so the tone of wildlife paintings, the choice of colour, of representational or abstract form, all combine to present a specific message to us. A relaxed bucolic scene, for example, a farmyard rooster maybe, will take the viewer back to simpler times or a day spent free from the cares of the world. While a painting juxtaposing natural images with the manmade (blue tits on a takeout coffee cup, for example) has something specific to say about the dangerous imbalance between men s get it now culture and the delicate rhythms of the earth.
Wildlife painting, it seems, has always been part of our heritage. What modern images say about modern life could be quite important.