5 Most Iconic Animal Paintings in Art History - Learn About Nature (2024)

by Nato Lagidze

Animal-themed paintings are common all around the world. Considering that animals are an integral part of nature, artists often draw inspiration from their beauty and reflect their unique characteristics in their paintings. Interestingly, animal themes are often used not only by modern artists but even the first artworks in the world including animal figures. Specifically, these cave paintings were founded first in Altamira caves.

While ancient animal paintings symbolized shamanistic rituals or hunting processes, modern artworks that feature animals are more complex — their ideas aren’t as straightforward, and it’s not as easy to decode what the artist wanted to say. Today, we’ll discuss 5 iconic animal paintings that feature some of the most beloved animals.


  • 1 1. ‘Dogs Playing Poker’ by Cassius Marcellus Coolidge
  • 2 2. ‘A Lion Attacking a Horse’ by George Stubbs
  • 3 3. ‘Deer in the Forest’ by Franz Marc
  • 4 4. ‘Two Owls’ by Gustave Doré
  • 5 5. ‘Le Chat Blanc’ by Pierre Bonnard
  • 6 Bottom Line

1. ‘Dogs Playing Poker’ by Cassius Marcellus Coolidge

For those who have had the opportunity to sit at the poker table or have played poker online at reputable websites, a single look at this painting will be enough to understand its plot. ‘Dogs Playing Poker’ is a series of oil paintings by American Quaker artist Cassius Marcellus Coolidge, who was also known as “Cash”.

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Each of the eight artworks included in this collection describes dogs that are anthropomorphized by the artist, which means that they’re given human abilities (to play poker, in this case). This series of dog paintings has become iconic in pop culture and has been featured in multiple movies, music videos, and TV shows, including Family Guy, Puss in Boots, and Snoop Dogg’s music video “What’s My Name.”

2. ‘A Lion Attacking a Horse’ by George Stubbs

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Animal paintings often describe scenes from nature that can be read as allegories of human interactions. One such painting is George Stubbs’s ‘A Lion Attacking a Horse’. Stubbs is an English artist who was obsessed with the theme of a lion attacking a horse. In fact, he created not just a single artwork but as many as 17 paintings around this theme.

According to art critics, the lion in his work symbolizes power and primal instinct, while a horse is a sign of vulnerability under pressure. Despite some differences in the specific meanings of these two animals, it’s obvious that Stubbs’ work describes human connections. This painting can be seen in the Paul Mellon Collection at the Yale Center for British Art.

3. ‘Deer in the Forest’ by Franz Marc

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Decoding the exact meanings of Expressionist animal artworks like ‘Deer in the Forest’ by Franz Marc is especially complex. Marc was one of the most prominent figures in German expressionism. ​​‘Deer in the Forest’ is a 1913 oil painting where a deer is described in its natural habitat.

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It’s important to note that this particular artwork isn’t the only piece where Marc painted animals. In fact, he drew various animals, including horses, cows, and foxes. Believe it or not, there’s even an idea that his paintings became antidotes to industrialization in the 20th century. It’s unknown why he was so obsessed with animals but if you take a closer look at his animal-themed paintings, you’ll soon realize common symbols about human life and its connection with the modern world.

4. ‘Two Owls’ by Gustave Doré

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Owl symbolism is usually associated with wisdom, mystery, and a deep connection to the night. All these symbols are present in ‘Gustave Doré’s famous oil painting ‘Two Owls’. Doré was a French Romantic painter and illustrator who often drew illustrations that featured religious themes from the Bible and Dante’s Divine Comedy. Even though this particular artwork is oil on canvas, the artist worked in various mediums and created more than 100,000 sketches during his life.

This particular artwork features two owls that gaze into the darkness. The shadows and light that surround their figures create a mystical atmosphere. One of the owls in the painting has a frightening, predator-like gaze and looks ready to kill. The other, however, looks more surprised and rather confused.

READ MORE: 17 Animal-Themed Writing Prompts For Kids

5. ‘Le Chat Blanc’ by Pierre Bonnard

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The final iconic animal painting we’re about to discuss was also created by a French illustrator — post-impressionist painter Pierre Bonnard. ‘Le Chat Blanc’, which means “The White Cat” in English, is one of his most famous works, where he painted an odd, disproportionate cat with an unusual physiognomy. This 1894 painting is considered a caricature that blends realism with whimsy.

Again, this is not the only painting by Bonnard that features animals. In fact, he often drew domestic life and most of them are over-sized cats and dogs which often bring humor to everyday scenes.

Bottom Line

The 5 iconic paintings of animals that we described above are just a few of the many animal-themed artworks that famous artists have created all over the world. Most of these paintings capture a blend of domestic animals and wildlife. Regardless of whether they aim to reflect the characteristics of those animals or symbolize completely different, sometimes abstract concepts, it’s certain that all of these paintings have significant places in the history of art

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Nato Lagidze

Nato is a content writer and researcher with a background in psychology who’s eager to explore the wonders of nature. As a travel enthusiast and animal lover, she hopes to inspire others to discover and cherish the beauty and importance of the natural world.

5 Most Iconic Animal Paintings in Art History - Learn About Nature (2024)
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