From primitive cave paintings to lifelike depictions of other creatures, famous animal paintings have been around ever since our early ancestors figured out how to create prehistoric pigments. But what are the best examples, and where can you find them? Who created the most famous animal paintings? And what’s the most famous horse painting in the world? Read more to find out.
Famous horse paintings
Horses are majestic, powerful (there’s a reason we still use the term ‘horsepower’), and supremely useful – especially in time periods prior to bicycles, cars, and planes. It’s not entirely surprising that they therefore feature in plenty of the world’s most famous animal paintings. Here are some top examples.
The Lascaux Cave Paintings
Let’s start at the beginning: around 17,000 years ago. Depending on your definition of ‘painting’, you can find famous horse paintings dating back to the very start of human artistic endeavours. As soon as people figured out how to draw stuff on walls, they started creating pictures of horses. And who can blame them? While they aren’t the oldest cave paintings in the world (by around 30,000 years), the examples found at France’s Lascaux cave complex certainly are some of the most famous.
Location: Lascaux, France
Napoleon Crossing the Alps – Jacques-Louis David
This painting by Jacques-Louis David is arguably the most iconic depiction of Napoleon Bonaparte. Ironically, it’s also one of the few that Napoleon wasn’t physically present for – the model for the painting was actually the artist’s son, after the emperor refused to sit down for an extended amount of time. Napoleon Crossing the Alps is a milestone in the depiction of the famous French conqueror, and marks the transition from mostly realistic interpretations to idealized representations of the emperor.
Napoleon isn’t the only celebrity in this painting though – it can also be seen as a bit of an ode to Marengo, his famous war horse. Depicted here as a fiery steed with bloodshot eyes, Marengo served as the emperor’s mount throughout numerous battles, and was described as being particularly reliable and courageous; almost an understatement, considering that this faithful horse was injured eight times throughout his career at battles including Austerlitz and the infamous Waterloo.
Location: Château de Malmaison, Rueil-Malmaison, France
Whistlejacket – George Stubbs
Another one of the most famous oil paintings of horses ever (this time without a diminutive French emperor in sight), Whistlejacket is an approximately life-sized depiction of a prized Arabian thoroughbred belonging to the Marquess of Rockingham. As an artist, Stubbs specialized in equine works – basically, if you wanted a great horse painting during the mid-1700s, Stubbs was your man.
The sheer size of the canvas made this painting an instant legend, with contemporaries astounded by the audacity and scale of the project. Animal paintings were often considered to be ‘below’ true groundbreaking art in terms of the hierarchy of genres at the time, and this work can be seen as a direct challenge to that notion. Stubbs depicts the individual animal in its full detail and personality, with no other distractions – in other words, it’s a really, really superb painting of a horse.
Location: National Gallery, London
The Parade – Edgar Degas
Also known as Race Horses in Front of the Tribunes, this famous artwork depicts a scene Degas was fond of painting: horse races. During Degas’s lifetime, racecourses were considered a prime spot for high society and up-and-coming aristocrats. On top of the inescapable allure of such a social hotspot, Degas also seems to have had a genuine interest in drawing horses.
His work includes countless sketches of horses, with particular focus on their shapes and movement, likely to have been inspired by a period during which he stayed with his friends in a popular horse-breeding and racing region. The moment Degas chose for this particular painting (not the actual race, full of action and furious movement, but a tense moment of quiet before the race begins) helps focus the attention on the beauty of the composition instead of the immediate subject matter. Once again, an A+ horse painting by Degas.
Location: Musée d’Orsay, Paris
The Horse Fair – Rosa Bonheur
On a scale of Degas to Stubbs, Rosa Bonheur definitely leans more towards the latter. While Degas was focused on shapes and composition, Bonheur was very much about the beauty of the horse itself. She produced some of her era’s most famous horse paintings, with The Horse Fair being a particularly notable example.
But while the aforementioned male artists were being invited to country manors and racecourses to paint pictures of horses, life wasn’t as straightforward for Bonheur. As a female artist, she experienced significant discrimination. While it was usual for budding artists to study anatomy at slaughterhouses (as grim as that may sound), the level of harassment she received while doing this led to her seeking an official ‘permission de travestissement’ (permission to dress and present as a man) from the local authorities.
Attending the Parisian horse market twice a week for 1.5 years, Bonheur avoided drawing attention to herself as she studiously laid the foundation for this large-scale painting. Her work would eventually pay off, with this particular painting being displayed at a private viewing for Queen Victoria at Buckingham Palace. It’s currently one of the Metropolitan Museum’s best-known works.
Location: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Famous tiger paintings
The tiger’s mystique and dangerous allure, as well as its striking colour pattern, make it a consistent favourite for artists who want to create a visceral image. Whether they’re roaring ferociously or lurking ominously in the background, tigers are an incredibly popular choice of subject matter for famous animal paintings. Here are three of the best.
Tiger in a Tropical Storm – Henri Rousseau
Henri Rousseau had a bit of a thing for tigers. It’s actually been said (by us, just now) that he was the 19th-century post-impressionist equivalent of Joe Exotic. This striking example of his work features a tiger about to pounce on its unsuspecting prey, in the middle of a vicious thunderstorm. It’s every bit as cool as it sounds.
Rousseau himself – much like Joe Exotic – was a bit of an enigma, and seems to have at the very least tolerated (if not propagated) the idea that he had personally encountered a tiger in the jungle at least once during his time in Mexico. More likely, he saw a taxidermied version of a tiger at the Jardin des Plantes, or simply reused a motif he found in previous work by Eugène Delacroix.
Mostly derided by critics during his lifetime, Rousseau’s work (including his famous tiger paintings) would go on to win admirers including Picasso, Matisse, and Toulouse-Lautrec. It should also be said that, despite his love of tigers, the artist is believed to have never left France.
Location: National Gallery, London
Tiger – Franz Marc
Franz Marc is largely unknown to the greater public when compared to Cubist counterparts like Picasso, but his Tiger gives you a pretty clear idea of what this style is all about. Marc’s deconstruction of a tiger uses bold primary colours, with thick black lines that create a sense of ominous tension and impending doom (in other words, death by tiger attack).
All the individual parts of a tiger are there, but in jagged asymmetrical shapes, and this more abstract depiction of the animal is every bit as impactful as a photorealistic representation. Marc is also known for other famous animal paintings that are slightly more gentle than this fearsome beast (think of titles like Cat on a Yellow Pillow), but this version of a tiger is arguably his most iconic work.
Location: Lenbachhaus, Munich
Victory or Defeat – Hu Zaobin
If you’re into 20th-century Chinese art, you may have been wondering why we didn’t get here sooner. Hu Zaobin very much specialized in tigers, having perfected his craft both in his native China and at the Kyoto Municipal Art Institute in Japan. Unlike Rousseau, Hu actually did embark on a tour of Southeast Asia, taking many photographs along the way that would serve as references for his later work.
While he died of illness at the young age of 46, following numerous political conflicts and attempts to escape to safety during World War II, Hu’s body of work contains some of the most famous tiger paintings in existence. Victory or Defeat is just one of many iconic and influential depictions. If you’re wondering who laid the foundations for your cousin Chad’s sick tiger tattoo, it’s possible that you can trace the artistic lineage all the way back to this man.
Location: Macau Museum of Art, Macau
Famous cat paintings
Presumably cats themselves would have fancied themselves more in the previous category of ‘mighty snarling beast’. Unfortunately for them, artists over the years have depicted cats more as they really are: adorable, slightly bizarre little creatures. Because there are so many famous animal paintings based on cats, it’s hard to pick only a handful – but here they are.
Louis Wain’s cat paintings
“He has made the cat his own. He invented a cat style, a cat society, a whole cat world. English cats that do not look and live like Louis Wain cats are ashamed of themselves.”H.G. Wells
The details of Louis Wain’s life, particularly regarding his mental health and the impact it had on his art, remain disputed. But one thing we can say for sure is that he devoted most of his artistic efforts towards depictions of cats, which gradually turned more and more abstract over the years. His work often featured anthropomorphic cats (cats who act like humans and do human things), as well as deeply colourful, mandala-esque renditions of cats that look like fractal art.
There are a few different theories: Wain’s worsening schizophrenia being reflected in his art, it simply being a case of greater experimentation and use of colour as he developed as an artist, and even the notion that his schizophrenia was caused by toxoplasmosis contracted from cats. Whatever the case may have been, Wain created some of the most famous cat paintings in the world during his troubled lifetime.
Location: Victoria and Albert Museum, London, and Berrington Hall, Herefordshire
Cat and Bird – Paul Klee
Paul Klee was fascinated by the art made by children, the spirit of which he evoked and channeled into his own art. He was also, by many accounts, quite fascinated by cats. This expressionist work combines two of Klee’s interests into quite a dreamlike composition – despite the tension you might expect to find between a cat and a bird, the colour palette and softness of it all makes it seem much less like a life-and-death situation than you might initially assume.
There are many different interpretations of the painting, most focusing on a sense of menace, mystery, and hidden motivations (in this case, the cat quite literally has the bird on its mind). Even without reading too much into the meaning and symbolism of the painting, it’s a beautiful work of art to look at in person, with its warm and almost burnt-looking colours.
Location: Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York
The White Cat – Pierre Bonnard
At first glance, you could be forgiven for thinking that this was drawn by someone who’s not entirely sure what a cat actually looks like. But rest assured that Bonnard was a fine artist who painstakingly made sure he got the details right, creating plenty of preparatory drawings before finally settling on an image that he knew was going to get the humorous effect he wanted.
This cat is in the process of performing what cat owners will know as ‘ooo, a big stretch!’ – a mighty and exaggerated arch of its back, presumably shaking a bit as it stretches its muscles and puffs itself up in the most hilarious and undignified way possible. Bonnard took great inspiration from Japanese woodblock prints, which you might be able to notice when placing this painting side by side with ukiyo-e depictions of cats.
Location: Musée d’Orsay, Paris
Chat Noir – Théophile Steinlen
You’ll be able to find a reproductions, or prints, of this iconic poster all over Paris – and plenty of other cities too. Think back deeply and try to remember where you’ve seen this image before – because you definitely have. Whether it was in one of your friends’ hallways or in the background of films like The Secret Life of Pets or Breakfast at Tiffany’s, this famous example of art as advertisement was originally used to promote a Parisian night club.
Some of the famous names visiting the club (presumably drawn in by this poster) include Paul Verlaine, Henri Rivière, Claude Debussy, Paul Signac, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec – in other words, it was a pretty effective piece of advertising. Like many of the artists on this particular list, Steinlen had a great fondness for cats, reflected in much of his work. While Chat Noir is undoubtedly the most well-known, he also has numerous other cat-based works – including cat statues he sculpted himself!
Location: Various (including the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam)
Famous dog paintings
You knew this was coming. If cats have some of the most famous animal paintings out there, rest assured that dogs give them a good run for their money. Without further awoo, it’s canine time.
Dogs Playing Poker – Cassius Marcellus Coolidge
Between 1894 and 1910, American artist Cassius Marcellus Coolidge spent quite a lot of time drawing anthropomorphic dogs. Slightly cooler than your average dog, these hounds partook in activities including ballroom dancing, baseball, testifying in court, and – most notably – playing poker.
16 of Coolidge’s paintings for this series were actually commissioned as advertisements to help sell cigars – little did anyone know at the time that these would eventually turn into the most famous dog paintings in history. These paintings have been featured in so many different places that they’ve become part of our greater cultural consciousness, whether we know who Cassius Marcellus Coolidge was or not.
Here’s a short list of things you might know these paintings from: Cheers, Roseanne, Snoop Dogg’s music videos, That ‘70s Show, Animaniacs, The Far Side, Law & Order, Family Guy, Magic: The Gathering, Boy Meets World, Toy Story 4, The Simpsons, and (genuinely) too many other things to name here.
Location: Various private collections
Good Friends – Norman Rockwell
Coolidge wasn’t the only prominent American artist with a love for dogs. Norman Rockwell often focused on canine companions, and actively sought to do them justice in each of his paintings.
In his instructional book ‘How I Make a Picture’, he instructed budding artists to depict dogs “just as carefully and understandingly as you paint the people.” Surrounded by dogs himself throughout the course of his life, he knew how much personality animals could have, and understood that they should be seen as much more than background props for artists.
There are plenty of dog-based Rockwell works to choose from, but in the end ‘Good Friends’ sums it all up quite nicely: Rockwell’s traditional Regionalism, the all-American boy scout imagery, the nurturing relationship between a mother dog and her pups, and – of course – the general idea of humans and dogs being good friends.
Location: Norman Rockwell Museum, Stockbridge
Dog – Pablo Picasso
“Hell, that little dog just took over. He ran the damn house.”David Douglas Duncan
Technically not a ‘famous dog painting’ as much as a ‘famous dog sketch’, Picasso’s representation of his treasured little dachshund named Lump is still a pretty iconic work of canine-related art. There’s a good chance you’ve seen this image reproduced somewhere – on a t-shirt, poster, or mug – and it’s a solid representation of Picasso’s depiction of animals in his sketches.
Picasso generally used a minimalist approach (in this case as minimal as a single line) to draw animals in an abstract way – but that shouldn’t be seen as any indication that he didn’t absolutely love this dog. There are entire books devoted to the fond relationship between the two, and Lump was Picasso’s friend until the very end; he died only ten days before the artist himself. Today, much like Picasso himself, Lump lives on in the form of art.
Mother Dog and Puppies (“Mogyeon”) – Yi Am
There are a number of historical Korean artists known for their famous animal paintings, but Yi Am was among the most influential. Active during the mid-Joseon dynasty (around the early to mid-1500s), he notably began creating his own style and moving away from the traditional Chinese school of painting.
As a result, his groundbreaking depictions of animals influenced further generations of Korean artists, like Byeon Sangbyeok, also famous for his animal-based work. Mother Dog and Puppies specifically captures the warm atmosphere that must have inspired Yi Am – despite this work of art being around 500 years old, you can still see the content little smile on the puppy’s face as it flops onto its belly and takes a nap. The emphatic focus is on the animals themselves – the tree in the background adds a bit of context, but is mostly just a relaxing backdrop for the subject matter itself: the dogs.
Location: National Museum of Korea, Seoul
Dog Paintings – David Hockney
Picasso’s Lump wasn’t the only dachshund treasured by a famous artist. British painter David Hockney spent two years creating loving portraits of his own little companions, referred to as his ‘Dog Days’. Between 1994 and 1995, he created more than 40 paintings and drawings of his two friends, Stanley and Boodgie. While these works of art are too recent (copyrighted) to be publicly shared, they can be admired online here.
Location: The David Hockney Foundation, Leeds
Sleeping Dog – Gerrit Dou
In the year 1650, Dutch artist Gerrit Dou painted this picture of a sleeping dog. Taking inspiration from his fellow Dutch master Rembrandt, he meticulously recreated the animal in painstaking and loving detail, to great acclaim. For centuries afterwards, the painting has received glowing reviews – to the point where it is still one of the most popular paintings at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.
“It is impossible for painting to be carried to higher perfection than that displayed in this exquisite little picture.”John Smith
Location: Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Famous monkey paintings
From evil monkeys at the Rijksmuseum to an entire art scene devoted to our vine-swinging friends, monkeys have been some of the most popular animals to depict throughout the course of art history. Below are two of the best examples.
Monkey Tavern – David Teniers the Younger
David Teniers the Younger contributed to an artistic movement referred to as the ‘monkey scene’, meaning that he absolutely has to be put on his list. If you’re wondering to what extent Teniers was involved with drawing monkeys or monkey business in general, the word ‘monkey’ appears 35 times on his Wikipedia page alone. You might also look no further than this painting, which features no less than four anthropomorphic monkeys at a tavern.
Monkeys were incredibly popular subjects during the 16th and 17th centuries, and were often depicted as mischievous rascals (sometimes in human clothes) as part of comical scenes. They were also used to reduce human behaviour down to its most absurd level, mocking humanity’s most foolish and illogical aspects.
Location: Museo del Prado, Madrid
Self Portrait with Monkeys – Frida Kahlo
If you start asking your friends to name a famous monkey painting, it’s only a matter of time until someone brings up one of Frida Kahlo’s many monkey-based images. She painted an estimated 55 self-portraits throughout her life, and eight of these feature at least one spider monkey. That’s significantly more spider monkeys than the average self portrait has.
Monkeys did play a substantial part of Kahlo’s home life – she had up to four keeping her company at one time, which are faithfully depicted in the self-portraits mentioned above. But there was more to these monkeys than simply being adorable and fun – Kahlo was acutely aware of the politics of art and the pre-Hispanic history of Mexico, and would have recognised the strong symbolic importance of monkeys in pre-colonial art; monkeys were represented in the Aztec world as gods of fertility, sexuality, and were heavily linked to the arts including song and dance.
Location: Various (including Albright–Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York, and Harry Ransom Center, Austin, Texas)
Famous sheep paintings
Sheep have been a part of rural life and pastoral scenes for centuries, meaning there are quite a few of these paintings out there. Put yourself in the (uncomfortable) shoes of a budding artist in the 1800s; you can imagine it might have been easier to find a sheep than an elephant or tiger. Hence, we have hundreds of famous sheep paintings to choose from. Let’s stick to three of the most famous.
Agnus Dei – Francisco de Zurbarán
Sheep – especially lambs – also carry significant religious connotations and symbolism. Christ is often represented as a lamb; in many cases, like this one, a sacrificial lamb, representing the sacrifice of God to save the world from sin. Instead of very literally painting Christ on the cross, the imagery of the lamb conveys the artist’s religious message in a more symbolic way.
Bound in an unmistakably sacrificial posture, this poor merino lamb is one of the most famous animal paintings in the illustrious Museo del Prado’s collection, and combines technical mastery with real emotional impact. Despite a comparative lack of religious imagery and symbolism found in other depictions (some versions of Agnus Dei have a literal halo above the lamb), Francisco de Zurbarán’s still-life approach leads to an incredibly powerful image.
Location: Museo del Prado, Madrid
Ghent Altarpiece – Hubert and Jan van Eyck
Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, also known as the Ghent Altarpiece, is another example of an ‘Agnus Dei’ representation, and is one of the world’s most famous animal paintings – for all the wrong reasons. It holds the dubious distinction of being the world’s most stolen artwork, has been extraordinarily close to destruction on more than one occasion, and was at the very core of the Nazi regime’s artistic wish list during the plunder of artworks during World War II.
The Ghent Altarpiece is, of course, much more than just an animal painting. It features a comprehensive depiction of Christianity’s most influential figures, and the imagery of the lamb is – in the greater context of the whole altarpiece – quite a tiny figure. But, as the title suggests, the lamb is at the very heart of this painting, which remains in Ghent’s Saint Bavo Cathedral.
“It’s easy to argue that the artwork is the most influential painting ever made: it was the world’s first major oil painting, and is laced with Catholic mysticism.”Noah Charney, The Guardian
Location: Saint Bavo Cathedral, Ghent
Shepherdess with her Flock – Jean-Francois Millet
Displayed at the Paris Salon of 1864 to significant acclaim, this famous sheep painting conveys a sense of peace, tranquility, and perhaps a slight tinge of melancholy. A young shepherdess, potentially based on the artist’s daughter, stands in front of her flock in a quiet and private moment.
As opposed to the previous two paintings, Millet was not as concerned with the sheep or lamb acting as an Agnus Dei figure, and instead focused on elevating the everyday scenes of rural life, providing dignity and nobility to pastoral scenes. The artist seems to have had sheep on his mind for a number of years – stating that the idea for this painting “had taken hold of him’’, compelling him to create the image. It’s now part of the Orsay’s famous collection of paintings, next to other masterpieces.
Location: Musée d’Orsay, Paris
Pigcasso: The painting pig
Lastly, in case you came here by googling ‘famous painting animals’ and are extremely disappointed at the amount of humans in this post, please enjoy a demonstration by the mighty Pigcasso – truly one of the greatest and most famous animal artists of all time: