Antoine-Louis Barye, the King of the Animalier

Kathryn Flynn is a sophomore studying art photography at Syracuse University. Along with creating her mixed media portfolio, she enjoys exploring fashion design, popular culture, and art history.

Antoine-Louis Barye was named “Michelangelo of the menagerie” by art critic Théophile Gautier who was impressed by Barye’s Jaguar Devouring a Hare (1850) displayed in 1855 at the Exposition Universelle in Paris. The French artist was acclaimed for his mastery of the animalier tradition, influencing both his contemporaries such as the illustrious Eugène Delacroix, as well as successive generations of artists. Admired chiefly for his bronze creatures, Barye’s prolific body of work included skillfully rendered portraits, landscape, and animal paintings. Embracing distinctive elements of Romanticism, Barye explored the emotive power of nature and the Sublime. Tiger, Barye’s plaster mold in the art collections at Syracuse University, is one of the countless animated sculptures of animals that the artist made in the nineteenth century.

   Tiger exemplifies Barye’s preoccupation with nature and the exotic–a fascination he shared with many other Romantics. During an age of colonization and expansive empirical study, a wide-ranging curiosity regarding the natural world and zoology emerged and flourished. The fluid connections between the arts, humanities, and sciences encouraged artists to explore the world through multiple lenses. Additionally, the importation of foreign animals triggered an intense interest in their unfamiliarity. A taste for exotic animals prevailed in all visual domains. The circus and animal combat became spectacles of public attraction. Barye frequented these events along with menageries, museums, and animal dissections to draw and sketch his subjects (Johnston, 5). Moreover, like many other Romantics, he practiced “plein air” painting (painting in nature), which enabled him to encounter animals in their outdoor habitats. By 1793, the Jardin des Plantes was instituted in Paris and a small zoo established within its precincts became a significant focal point of Barye’s research (Johnston, 5; 33-34). The Cabinet of Comparative Anatomy accompanied the menagerie allowing for close proximity to the foreign animals that drew his attention. The artist exhaustively studied the behavior of captive animals at the Jardin des Plantes. For its part, the Cabinet of Comparative Anatomy showcased skeletons and dissections, which provided anatomical measurements that Barye replicated in his sculptures (Johnston, 5-6). Often accompanied by Delacroix, Barye also visited the menagerie in Saint-Cloud where both artists indulged in their passion for observing wild and exotic animals (Johnston, 6).

   Barye’s meticulous depiction of animal character is attributed to his keen eye for exploration and his extensive documentation of scientific knowledge. As seen in Tiger, Barye deftly renders the muscular anatomy and savage intensity of the creature. Sculpted in the Romantic tradition of the “momentary,” the tiger is depicted in the midst of a powerful stride, its jaw opened slightly. Small yet powerful, it makes the viewer anticipate its next move. We are in awe of the beast as we simultaneously admire its natural simplicity and spontaneity. Barye skillfully retains a detailed and lively duplication of the animal, despite the work’s compact scale.

   The nineteenth-century sculpture characterizes Barye’s animalier pieces in addition to suggesting the urban domestication of wildlife. Without unified validation from the critics of the Paris Salon early on in his career, Barye lacked the requisite endorsement from the State to produce bronze statues on a monumental scale. In order to supplement his income, therefore, he accepted private commissions from members of the aristocracy and bourgeoisie (Johnston, x-xi; 66-72). Barye primarily produced portable bronze statues that echoed the scale of Tiger.

   Formally educated and highly proficient in the art of sculpting, the artist utilized various forms of casting, often first producing plaster models like the Tiger that would later be remade in bronze. Tiger also demonstrates the desire to reproduce the ferocious predator in a minimized size. By diminishing the scale, Barye effectively subdues the vicious animal, further suggesting that it is subject to human ownership. In other words, the artist harnessed untamed ferocity in a decorative size for aesthetic pleasure. Indeed, Barye’s prominence arose from his ability to blur the line between fine art and decorative sculpture. Seen another way, the desire to “capture” the animal in bronze mirrors the need to make captive wildlife—all for human amusement.

   Across Antoine-Louis Barye’s vast body of work, Jaguar Devouring a Hare (1850) is one of the artist’s most admired sculptures. Presiding currently in the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, this striking work of art features the elongated muscular body of a jaguar ravaging a hare’s feeble corpse. Following the artist’s absence from the Paris Salon, Jaguar Devouring a Hare marked his second debut. Commissioned by the State, Barye proclaimed his talent with the frenzied scene masterfully compacted and cast in bronze (Johnston, 10; Johnston and Kelly, 166). When the sculpture was exhibited at the Exposition Universelle of 1855, critics raved about Barye’s impassioned naturalism. Gautier applauded the artist’s statue, observing that “the mere reproduction of nature does not constitute art; he aggrandizes his animal subjects, simplifying them, idealizing and styling them in a manner that is bold, energetic, and rugged,” (Gautier, 1856; as cited by Johnston, 166). Similarly, the Goncourt brothers, Edmond and Jules, appraised the work with their review of the Salon of 1852 in stating, “contemporary art… has as its basis the displacement of… its focus on the heroic past, in favor of a direct engagement with nature,”. They continued in acknowledging Barye’s novelty with, “this displacement… is nothing arbitrary, but represents the necessary ‘evolution’ of modern art,” (Simms, 71).

   As I noted earlier, Gautier had dubbed Barye the “Michelangelo of the menagerie,” a distinction that other critics and academics of the time continually referenced. The qualities that they praised in the Jaguar Devouring a Hare could in fact be found throughout the artist’s portfolio. The jaguar’s pose and detail are similar to what we see in Tiger and both sculptures emphasize the artist’s extensive research on animal behavior and anatomy. Moreover, both felines are depicted as stealthy, agile, and powerful creatures whose movements heighten our sense of anticipation. While the jaguar fiercely gnaws on its prey, the tiger proudly stalks its prey, its mouth seemingly open as if about to emit a roar. The ferocious action in combination with the pronounced tension of the body reiterates the allure of savage wildlife. Barye, again, selects an exotic feline as the focal point of his work, thus highlighting a preoccupation with the unfamiliar.

   In later years, Jaguar Devouring a Hare would also inspire other celebrated artists. Emerging during the Post-Impressionist period, French artist Henri Matisse imitated Barye in his early sculptural work (Millard, 238-239). Made between 1899 and 1901, Matisse’s model reveals the direct influence of Barye’s sculpture (Johnston and Kelly, 166). Matisse’s study shares the emotive quality of Barye’s work, yet it also presents the jagged geometric-like carving reminiscent of Matisse’s cubist style as opposed to Barye’s organic realism.

   During his period of absence from the Paris Salon, Barye directed his skills towards commercial profit. With little documentation left behind by the artist, art historians have concluded the establishment of multiple workshops during this time (Johnston, 66-72). Yet ultimately, Barye promoted his small-scale bronze statues through various foundries, few under his own operation. Following the artist’s death in 1940, Ferdinand Barbedienne is notably credited with purchasing and replicating 126 Barye bronzes (Kader, 151). Walking Tiger (Striding Tiger) (1844) was one such example that was issued in the catalogue of beasts to be made by the Barbedienne foundry (Johnston, 157). Roger Ballu, one of the artist’s first biographers, determined that the piece was intended to complement Lion Walking from 1836 (Ballu, 1890; as cited by Johnston, 157). Both Walking Tiger (Striding Tiger) and Lion Walking (figure 5) bear a striking resemblance to Tiger. Specifically, the plaster model suggests the artist was making preliminary studies for his later work, Walking Tiger (Striding Tiger). As witnessed with earlier works, foundries, such as Honoré Gonon and Sons, cast molds of Barye’s models. The molds “allowed for the creation of cast-plaster positives… the technique insured that the original sculptor’s model would not be lost in event of a bad [lost-wax bronze] pour,” (Benge, 233).

   Each work precisely imitates the muscular anatomy of the animals, a detailed approach that characterizes the artist’s entire body of work. But Walking Tiger (Striding Tiger) does something more—it is a striking duplicate of the plaster mold, be it in the creature’s stance or in its alert scowl. Besides such similarities, the dimensions of each work are also remarkably close. Tiger measures nine inches high, sixteen inches long, while Walking Tiger is a little over 8 inches by 16 inches. Clearly, Barye’s Tiger in the art collections at Syracuse University is a rare early model for Walking Tiger.

   Barye’s Tiger highlights the Romantic fascination with nature as a spectacle and with exoticism at large—a fascination that remains embedded in modern culture today. The Romantic movement sparked a taste for spontaneity and naturalism. As the leading animalier of his time, Antoine-Louis Barye championed such taste by focusing on the spontaneous and primal energy of exotic beasts. As I have discussed earlier, Barye pioneered the art of transforming exotic animals into domestic ornaments. Utilizing sand-casting rather than lost-wax casting, the artist made affordable masterpieces for both the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie (Johnston, 66-72). Owning one of Barye’s statues meant possessing the power and luxury associated with these animals. The primal feline boasts a regality and vigorous spirit that is continually idolized in our culture today. Media and popular culture reiterate the status and power associated with exoticism. Till this day, celebrities invest in exotic “pets.” Affluent rappers, known for parading their wealth, often purchase foreign animals to draw attention to themselves. Notably, Rick Ross and Tyga flashed their ownership of tigers across media platforms. With the endangerment of the species, desire for their rarity amplified the animal as a recognizable symbol of power. Essentially, Barye’s sculpture popularized the taste for animal subjects across fine and decorative arts—a taste that continues to be fostered in the modern era.


Further Reading

  • Johnston, William R., et al. Untamed: The Art of Antoine-Louis Barye. Baltimore: Walters Art Museum, 2006.
  • Simms, Matthew T. “The Goncourts, Gustave Planche, and Antoine-Louis Barye’s ‘Un Jaguar Dévorant Un Lièvre.” Nineteenth-Century French Studies 38, no. 1/2 (2009): 67–84.
  • Millard, Charles W. “The Reclining Figure and the Development of Modern Sculpture.” The Hudson Review 27, no. 2 (1974): 234–244.
  •  Kader, Alexander. The founders and editors of the barye bronzes. The Sculpture Journal 17, no. 2 (2008): 151-152.
  • Benge, Glenn F. “A Barye Bronze and Three Related Terra Cottas.” Bulletin of the Detroit Institute of Arts 56, no. 4 (1978): 230–242.

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