For centuries, animals in European art illustrated familiar narratives, such as hunting scenes, stories from classical mythology, or biblical passages. Artists often relied on specimens in natural history collections or animals in royal zoos as models.
During the Age of Discovery (c. 1500-1900), Europeans explored and colonized parts of the globe, returning home with massive collections of specimens. Scientists classified and catalogued these collections, in keeping with Enlightenment-era thinking of the time. The Enlightenment upheld reason and rationality as the primary way of understanding the world. In art, anatomic accuracy illustrating specific characteristics of different species was highly valued.
Romanticism arose as a reaction to the Enlightenment. Romanticism valued emotion over rationality, the heart over the head. Romantic artists believed nature was the source of profound feelings, ranging from terror to ecstasy. Alfred Lord Tennyson’s famous line, Nature, red in tooth and claw and the sinuous sculptures of Antoine-Louis Barye epitomized this romantic way of envisioning nature.
In midst of these competing societal forces came Charles Darwin, whose theory of evolution through natural selection combined elements of both Enlightenment and Romantic thought. While Darwin stressed the importance of scientifically observing animals, he also showed that observing them in their natural habitat was critically important. Adding a Romantic element, he saw life as a constant battle, a struggle for existence. For artists, this made fieldwork important, but also encouraged a dramatic worldview embracing the notion of the survival of the fittest.
State of the Art: Student Art Show in honor of Marion BuchenrothThrough May 29, 2022
This youth art exhibit is an annual collaboration between the National Museum of Wildlife Art & art educators from the different Teton County schools. The…See the Exhibit
Scenes of Transcendent Beauty: Thomas Moran’s YellowstoneThrough August 23, 2022
Scenes of Transcendent Beauty includes 20 watercolor field sketches on loan from the Yellowstone Heritage and Resource Center in Gardiner, Montana. These intimate sketches provide a rare window into Moran’s artistic process and give the viewer insight into Moran’s Yellowstone.See the Exhibit