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Animals in Art

The Thrill of the Hunt
Gustave Courbet, <I>Deer in the Forest</I>, 1868, oil on canvas, Minneapolis Institute of Arts, gift of James J. Hill
zoom Gustave Courbet, Deer in the Forest, 1868, oil on canvas, Minneapolis Institute of Arts, gift of James J. Hill


People have enjoyed hunting for centuries. For some people, hunting is a matter of survival. But for the elite, it is more a stylish pastime than a necessity. Recreational hunters love the thrill of the chase and the satisfaction of a successful adventure. Because of the sport’s popularity, pictures of hunting escapades have been fashionable throughout time.

The artist Gustave Courbet was an avid hunter. His passion for the sport, along with the demand for hunting images, inspired him to paint numerous outdoor scenes. In fact, he painted more than thirty hunt pictures from 1850 through 1873. Some were paintings of hunting parties in action out in the field. Others were more peaceful scenes depicting animals at rest in their natural surroundings. Regardless of the scene, Courbet always tried to paint the animals in a sympathetic way.

Here we find two deer in a lush, wooded environment. Both are helping themselves to a tasty snack of tree leaves. The antlers on the deer in the foreground tell us that it is a stag (male). The deer in the background is probably a doe (female) because its antlers are very short. Courbet captured both deer in a moment—the stag is up on his hind legs as he reaches for leaves and the doe’s curved legs show that she is resting on the grass. If Courbet painted this pair out in the woods, he would have had to make quick observations to catch their movements. Deer are rather skittish animals and wouldn’t have been the best models to work with. Therefore it is believed that for some of his scenes, Courbet borrowed deer from a Parisian butcher.

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1. Courbet loved nature, and painted both animal scenes and landscapes.
Gustave Courbet, Château d’Ornans, 1855, oil on canvas, Minneapolis Institute of Arts, The John R. Van Derlip Fund and the William Hood Dunwoody Fund
2. The thrill of the hunt has been a popular art subject for centuries. This seventeenth-century tapestry shows hunters and their dogs chasing a wild hare.
Unidentified designers and cartoonists, Hunting the Hare, c. 1650, wool, silk; tapestry weave, Minneapolis Institute of Arts, The William Hood Dunwoody Fund
3. Deer have been the subject of art for various reasons. According to the Taoist philosophy, a deer is an auspicious symbol.
China, Sung dynasty, Pillow, tz’u-chou ware, stoneware with painted decoration on white slip under a clear glaze, Minneapolis Institute of Arts, gift of Eskenazi Ltd., London, in honor of Ruth and Bruce Dayton


April 2008