June 22, 2021

At the Met: Animals

Storage Jar decorated with Ibexes, Central Iran, 4,000-3600 B.C.

Humans have lived with, worked with, observed, worshipped, made myths about non-human animals for millennia. When I look at this elegantly delineated ibex, it's hard for me to comprehend that this pot was made 6,000 years ago. In John Berger's elucidating essay, "Why Look at Animals", he describes how humans and animals had lived parallel lives in the past, before the 19th century, in which 
every tradition between man and nature was broken. Before this rupture, animals constituted the first circle of what surrounded man. Perhaps that already suggests too great a distance. They were with man at the centre of his world. Animals first entered the imagination as messengers and promises. 

Berger goes on to describe various ancient myths centering on animals, and how this human/animal relationship changed in modern times. Thinking of that closeness it's not at all surprising that there should be so many depictions of animals in art and artifacts. 


Weights in the shape of a frog, Mesopotamia, Iran, or Cypress, early 2nd millenium B.C.

Very simple lines and minimal form are all that's needed to sculpt the essence of an attentive frog. Upraised head, folded legs, bulging eye; she's ready to leap forward. And her rounded volume asks for a caress.

Wall painting from a bedroom, Roman, last decade of the 1st century B.C.

A sensitively rendered bird stands alert in the center of a dark swath of wall, warmly glowing against the polished surface. Someone who knows bird species could probably identify this one since it is so specific in its details.

Figure of a Hare, Egypt, 11th century

Such a lively little hare, with those large ears pricked and the tiny tail raised. I can't help but think that the maker of this piece particularly enjoyed sculpting that alert expression of anticipation.   

Statue of a Predatory Bird, Iran, 12th-13th century

There is a range of depiction from naturalism to abstraction that is very interesting to me. Different cultures have different approaches, all valid, all producing beautiful work. This predatory bird, with its large head and simple sweep of wings is closer to an abstract rendering, but I can still feel his aggressive posture.  There's a fluid line from the jutting beak to the swelling breast and back through the wings which is very satisfying. 

Bowl with fish motif, Iran, 13th century

Dish, follower of Bernard Palissy, French, late 16th century

Here are two favorite ceramic pieces at the Met, a bowl from Iran, and a later dish from France. They show very different approaches to decoration: one simplified and the other complex and full of detail. I love them both. The Iranian bowl has a clear design, having linear elements contrasting with the circling fish at the center. The French dish also has a central element, that of a looping snake, but surrounding it are fish and crustaceans and shells and foliage and an overall texture. It's as though these two pieces provide a clear illustration of abstraction and realism, and how effective each approach can be.

(I highly recommend clicking on the French dish in order to see more of its details.)

Power Object, Republic of Benin, Fon peoples, 19th century

An elephant is a symbol of strength for the Fon peoples, and silver makes the work a prestige item. In the museum description––link above––it is stated that precious objects such as this are filled with "supernaturally potent materials to protect the monarch". This is a culture in which the magical power of animals had not yet receded. 

Flat Bag, Coeur d"Alene, Schitsu'umsh, Coeur d'Alene artist, 1895-1905

We can compare this simplified beaded image of birds with the more realistic Roman wall painting of a bird above, but I don't see that either one is stronger than the other; they are simply different. On this bag, I especially like the way the artist made patterns out of the wings and tail feathers; those diagonals play against each other, creating an animated design. 

Bronze statuette of a horse, Greek, lat 2nd-1st century B.C. 

I've posted all the works above in historical order, but kept this horse for last. This elegant and proud small stallion, sixteen inches high,  presents me with an opportunity to speak of my relationships with animals. I live in a rural area, so have lots of animals nearby: deer, moose, bear, turkey, woodchuck, raccoon, birds of all sorts, and other small creatures. I love having this animal life around me, unless they help themselves in my vegetable garden. And of course I have pets, which John Berger in his essay says are one result of animal marginalization in our culture. I do treasure my inter-species interactions. My most intense experience of working with an animal, though, came when I had a horse. There was a remarkably sensitive communication with this large animal when I was sitting on her back, speaking to her with the weight of my body, the pressure of my legs, the touch of the bit in her mouth, and also with my voice. It was magical, and made the image of the centaur––the human/horse creature––completely understandable. It also made me feel closer to a time when non-human animals were an integral part of our lives. 

Altoon Sultan, Heifers, Pawlet, Vermont, 1987, 30 x 72 in.

I've worked on this post for a couple of days, and this morning I remembered that I too have a painting of animals in the collection at the Met (not on view). I painted Heifers during a time when I worked on agricultural landscapes, and many of them, being dairy farms, included cows. Cows are curious, and I feel that they wonder about me, as I do about them. This mutual regard across species, this wonderment and magic, makes it clear why artists have wanted to depict animals from the time of the earliest paintings, many thousands of years ago. 


  1. Loved finding your blog. Wonderful insights into the art here. I love your work. Would love to see in person. Is the cow one last one. A painting of yours?

    1. Thank you, Karen; glad you enjoy the blog. Yes, as I wrote and as the label states, the painting "Heifers" is by me.

  2. this is also so wonderful. thank you so much altoon for making my morning alive and new.