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Artists in 19th-century Paris went crazy for big cats.
Lion Hunters: Copying Delacroix's Big Cats celebrates the obsessive pursuit of the most lifelike representations of these fierce felines. The image above from the magazine L’Illustration in 1902 suggests just how widespread this enthusiasm was among Parisian artists of every caliber. In fact, the experience had become so normalized that the figure teasing a tiger with a handkerchief exhibits no fear, or even respect for the beast itself. In contrast, images from the early 19th century epitomized a noble ferocity in deep opposition to the civilized constraints of modern urban life. Lions, tigers, jaguars, and other big cats offered a tempting subject for Romantic artists like Eugène Delacroix and his followers. 

Two Art Institute paintings recently attributed to Delacroix's long-time assistant Pierre Andrieu inspired the installation. Despite prominent "Eug. Delacroix" signatures and a similar style, Andrieu's sketchbooks in the Musée du Louvre prove the compositions belong to the student, not the master. Also on display are both a watercolor and a bronze relief by Delacroix's sculptor friend Antoine Louis Barye. These artists sketched the caged animals at the Paris Jardin des Plantes zoo incessantly, craving early access to watch them being fed, and running at the chance to document a recently-deceased lion: 

    The lion is dead—make haste. The weather forces us to act. 
    I'll wait for you there. In great friendship, Eug. Delacroix

Indeed, Delacroix's famous note to Barye suggests they dropped everything once they heard of the noble beast's demise, so eager were they to draw its finally immobile cadaver in the name of art and science.

Compulsive standards of observation varied. Rosa Bonheur (1822-1899), a painter and sculptor of animals, also participated in dissections. She repeatedly rented one lion named Brutus for sketching, and eventually purchased several others for her own menagerie. Indeed, at the 1848 Salon, her animal pictures received a gold medal from a committee of judges that included Delacroix. 

But perhaps even more than Bonheur or Delacroix, Queen Victoria's favorite animal painter Edwin Landseer had the longest history of painting big cats from life, starting around age 9. He also attended dissections when he was older, and if the attribution to him of two drawings in Lion Hunters is correct, he may have produced two of the most realistic images of lions in captivity. Rather than the doe-eyed, saccharine lion family on view by Johann Höchle, or even the violent struggle of the Rubens, Delacroix, and Andrieu (after Delacroix) Lion Hunts seen nearby, Landseer did not shy away from the sordid details.

Rather, his lion lies flat on a stone slab (into which an EL monogram and the date are inscribed), with flies circling and his ribs showing from under ratty fur. The bars of the cage are not depicted, but the close range of the observation and the animal’s proximity to the back wall suggest the oppressive narrowness of a confining cell. This noble beast looks malnourished, and having been exposed to strong sunlight, very thirsty. Unlike the docile pets in the Jardin des Plantes Sunday artist sketching session seen above, this lion is no longer willing to perform. Unable to attack, he simply turns away from the viewer. In capturing this unglamorous pose, Landseer may have copied the truest cat of them all.

Co-organized by the Departments of European Painting and Sculpture and Prints and Drawings, Lion Hunters: Copying Delacroix's Big Cats is on view through January 15.

Image Credits:

Animal artists at the Jardin des Plantes, Paris. From the magazine "L'Illustration", 7 August 1902.

Pierre Andrieu. Wounded Lioness, 1840/50. Henry Field Memorial Collection.

Attributed to Edwin Henry Landseer. Reclining Lion, 1816. The Leonora Hall Gurley Memorial Collection.