The nature of the beast : depictions of the exotic animal in nineteenth century British visual culture
The depiction of exotic wild animals by British artists during the nineteenth century can be related to social issues dominant at the time, especially concerning evolution, questions of gender and Empire. Central to the argument of this thesis is that while wild animals exist in opposition to domestic ones, they are often anthropomorphised or used to represent negative human qualities. The wild animal offers a potent subject matter and, in the work of late eighteenth century artists, relates to the notion of the Sublime. Debate surrounding evolutionary theory clearly affected artists and the impact of Charles Darwin is considered. However, other scientific works of the period are also taken into account, as Darwin's theories cannot be seen as existing alone. Exotic animals formed a large part of entertainment during this period, thus the issue of how they are represented within this sphere will also be examined. Colonial exploration affected the portrayal of the wild animal, which is subsequently depicted as both hunted and hunter. Furthermore, the wild animal frequently adopts national significance; connotations of blood-lust and ferocity are easily transferred between human and animal. Mythological animals support the visual creation of separate male and female realms, as does the representation of animal products, which are used to cover the human body; fur and snakeskin offer a provocative addition to the nude figure. The nineteenth century saw the increased credibility of animal painting. Indeed, the exotic animal became a site of reflection upon which social concerns were projected. As a compelling visual symbol, depictions of the wild animal reveal much about Victorian society.