Paper Menagerie

elephant drawingThe library's books, photographs, and printed ephemera capture mammals and birds on paper. Indeed, the rise of interest in the portrayal of animals, whether in the home or from exotic lands, in the 18th and 19th centuries coincides with the library's periods of greatest concentration. Many mid to late 19th-century works document pets as part of the "cult of domesticity" and animals as design material for the rapidly expanding world of consumer goods. Several related themes, such as natural history, hunting, and breeding, are not explored in this exhibit due to lack of space, not for paucity of material--viewers are invited to "hunt" on their own for their favorite species in the library. 

Learning about Animals

Books and games conveyed much of the knowledge about animals as urbanization gradually decreased the amount of direct contact with wild and domesticated species. Recreational games and activities taught adults and children the appearance and factual information about foreign and native animals. Drawing manuals often invited nascent painters to watercolor the outlined figures of birds, insects, and mammals. Charming examples of marginalia show children themselves drawing the forms.

Genre painter John Lewis Krimmel (1786-1821), in his sketchbooks (now in the Joseph Downs Collection) manifested his curiosity in animals with quick pencil sketches and more detailed studies in watercolor. Krimmel, apparently to conserve space, sketched multiple vignettes on a notebook page; hence the striking juxtaposition of the kangaroo and the group of people. He may well have seen a live kangaroo in a traveling exhibit, as other Australian imports such as emus were advertised as attractions. The elephant in this sketch may have been one of two that toured the northeast in the early 1800s. 

Animals as Pets

Although pets had been kept in the 18th century, they became cherished as family members in the 19th. As part of their upbringing, children were expected to be caring and responsible pet owners. The many pictures of children and pets together signify their shared innocence and purity. A variety of wild animals such as squirrels, mockingbirds, and cardinals lived in households, but dogs and cats dominate the imagery. Dogs are deemed the most loyal and faithful of pets. Cats, in contrast, are shown as sometimes docile, sometimes mischievous. The intense interest in dogs and cats manifested itself through modifications of the animals' own forms. The library's encyclopedias from the first half of the 19th century show some varieties such as the greyhound and the poodle or "barbet." The many breeds we recognize today, however, emerged later in the century and even appear in trade catalogues as weathervanes and outdoor sculptures. These pets entered the commercial arena as firms specialized in their sale, and products such as collars, feed, and traveling cages were designed specifically for their use.

Photographs by Mary Harrod Northend show the affectionate relationship between pets and their owners in the early 20th century. Northend, best known for her books on the colonial revival, also recorded her friends and their animals, including cockatoos, cats, and several breeds of dogs. 

The Decorative Animal

Animals grace artworks of most cultures, and the widespread appreciation in the United States assured their presence on ceramics, textiles, and jewelry. Naturalistic forms are prevalent in American metalwork, such as the commercially produced weathervanes. More stylized creatures appear in that special form of 19th-century penmanship--calligraphic drawing. In the next century, art nouveau and art deco designs would celebrate the animal in conventionalized and abstracted forms.

The exhibit curators thank Maggie Lidz for her related research.

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