Prior to the nineteenth century, fables had been prominent in two periods of painting: during the Dutch Golden Age, when they were based on contemporary versions of “Aesop’s Fables”, and in the work of Jean-Baptiste Oudry (1686–1755), a great animal painter.
Another well-known animal painter, Edwin Henry Landseer, told La Fontaine’s fable of the Monkey and the Cat (La Fontaine IX.17) in The Cat’s Paw from about 1824. This shows the climax of this tale which is thought to have originated in around 1560.
Bertrand the monkey was roasting chestnuts in the embers of a fire. Rather than risk burning himself retrieving the nuts from the heat, he promised Raton the cat a share of them if the cat would scoop them out for him. The cat agreed, and as Bertrand ate the chestnuts when they emerged from the fire, the cat’s paw became more and more burned. Before the cat could claim its reward, they were disturbed by a maid. The monkey then profited from the cat’s efforts and suffering, but the cat was cheated from enjoying its share.
This has entered the French language in the idiom tirer les marrons du feu, meaning to act as someone’s dupe, or to benefit from the work of others. In English, the phrase cat’s paw is applied figuratively to someone who is used by another as their tool.
Landseer shows the chestnuts roasting on the top of a stove, and the monkey using the cat’s paw to hook them back in to him, as the cat wails in pain.
Oudry’s earlier illustrations had been transformed into tapestries by the Gobelins factory in Paris, and decorative depictions of fables had become quite popular. This anonymous print of Aesop’s Fable: The Fox and the Crow is a fine example of the decorative materials available in the USA in 1840. It refers to the well-known fable of the Fox and the Crow (Perry 124, La Fontaine I.2).
A crow found some cheese, and flew to a branch to eat it. A fox who also wanted the cheese flattered the crow, admiring its beauty and asking whether its voice was a match for that beauty. The crow was duped into making a ‘caw’, whereupon it dropped the cheese from its beak, allowing the fox to eat it up instead.
Occasionally, established artists turned to fables for drawings and paintings. This marvellous drawing in Conté crayon and pastel by Jean-François Millet is usually titled The Cat at the Window, and dates from about 1857-58. It shows a man peering out from his bed-curtain at a black cat entering the bedroom through the window, as the moonlight casts a patterned shadow on the bare floor.
Millet refers to a fable of Indian origin, from the Panchatantra, which also appears as Aesop’s Venus and the Cat, or La Fontaine’s the Cat transformed into a Woman (La Fontaine II.18).
A man became infatuated with his cat, and convinced the goddess Venus to change it into a woman, following which the couple married. On their wedding night, Venus tested her by introducing a mouse into the bedroom. She then sprang out of bed and chased the mouse across the room.
I don’t know if Millet drew any further scenes from this odd story, or if this is his only hauntingly curious drawing of the tale.
Some of the great Russian painters of the nineteenth century also took to fables, such as modern tales by Ivan Krylov (1769-1844). Here, Andrei Andreevich Popov’s Demyan’s Fish Soup (Демьянова уха) from 1865 tells one of Krylov’s fables.
The peasant Demyan wanted to show his hospitality towards his friend Foka. Demyan egged Foka on until he had consumed four full bowls of Demyan’s fish soup. At the fifth, Foka could stand it no more, and ran away.
Popov shows Foka the guest with his back to the open window, protesting that he has already had too much of the soup, as Demyan and his wife press him to go the extra bowl.
In about 1878, Gustave Moreau was commissioned to paint a large series of watercolours illustrating the fables of La Fontaine for the very rich Antoni Roux. Sadly, these remain in a private collection and are only accessible as a handful of engravings, which are hardly fair reflections of Moreau’s originals. Much of Moreau’s time from 1879 to 1884 was occupied with the more than sixty paintings in this series.
I am unsure whether Moreau’s Peacock Complaining to Juno of 1881 was part of that commissioned series, or was painted additionally.
It shows one of Aesop’s fables (told in Phaedrus III.18), in which the peacock, Juno’s favourite bird, complained to the goddess that it did not have the voice of a nightingale. Juno responded by saying that fate had assigned each bird its properties, and the peacock should be content with its lot.
Moreau’s exquisite watercolour gives little insight into the exchange between the two figures, and adds the ominous form of Jupiter’s eagle, keeping a watchful eye on his wife from a nearby cloud.
At the start of his career, when he was only 21, Gustav Klimt was influenced by Hans Makart and his classicist style and motifs. In 1883, Klimt painted an academic nude surrounded by some of Aesop’s fabulous creatures, in his Fable. These visual references to Aesop’s Fables include a sleeping lion, white mice, storks, and a fox, but Klimt refrained from building them into narrative.
With the exception of Paul Cézanne, the Impressionists avoided conventional narrative, but in this characteristic impression of mothering, Berthe Morisot shows the telling of The Fable (1883).
Those who followed the Impressionists were less shy of painting narrative. Ferdinand Hodler’s The Miller, his Son and the Donkey from about 1888 tells this classical fable (Perry 721, La Fontaine III.1) delightfully.
A miller and his son set out on a journey with their elderly donkey, and were repeatedly corrected by those passing by for their treatment of the donkey, in particular which of the pair should ride the animal. At this point in the story, it was the miller who was being borne by the donkey, and his son who was driving the animal. Three women passing by were telling the miller what he should have been doing, which was apparently quite different.
Gustave Moreau revisited Aesop’s fables late in his career. The Wolf and the Lamb of 1889 is, I think, a monochrome image of a painting which was made in full colour, which looks much more threatening than the earlier painting by Jean-Baptiste Oudry.
Pierre Bonnard’s exquisite three-panelled Japoniste screen of The Stork and Four Frogs was painted at the outset of his career, in about 1889. Its story is thoroughly European, based on Aesop’s fable retold by Jean de La Fontaine’s The Frogs who Demand a King (Perry 44, La Fontaine II.4).
The version retold by La Fontaine centres on a colony of frogs, who ask Jupiter for a king. The god’s first response to their request is a laid-back and gentle leader, whom the frogs reject as being too weak to rule them. Jupiter’s second attempt is a crane, who kills and eats the frogs for his pleasure. When the frogs complain to Jupiter, he then responds that they had better be happy with what they have got this time, or they could be given something even worse.
Bonnard’s panel is traditionally interpreted not as showing the evil crane of the second attempt, but the first and gentle ruler.
The following year, the British animal painter Walter Hunt (1860-1941) painted Sour Grapes (1890), which tells the fable of the Fox and the Grapes (Perry 15, La Fontaine III.11).
A fox saw some grapes which he wanted to eat, but they were too high up on the vine for him to reach. He jumped as high as he could, but was still unable to get them, so he went away, remarking that they weren’t even ripe, and that he didn’t want sour grapes – and this is also the origin of that English phrase.
Although grapes are grown in the south of England, Hunt’s retelling centres on the acorn fruit of that traditionally British tree the oak, and introduces a couple of squirrels, who could be the object of the fox’s attention. As with Oudry before, Hunt’s skill in painting the animals is greater than his narrative turn.
Despite their widely-known and often quite visual stories, fables have not proved attractive to many narrative painters. They were relatively popular during the Dutch Golden Age, in the period following the publication of La Fontaine’s collection, and in the late nineteenth century. I venture to suggest that those were the times when market forces made fables most attractive as commissions.
Prior to the nineteenth century, the dominant determinants of the stories in paintings were wealthy patrons, and institutions such as the churches. The former aspired to appear erudite, and to show rich and powerful friends paintings of common or garden fables was not their intention. Neither did the churches see any purpose in perpetuating secular stories instead of religious ones.
The market was different in the Dutch Golden Age, when many of the middle class collected ‘cabinets’ of paintings. For an aspiring shopkeeper or merchant, stories from Aesop were far more meaningful than those of unknown Greek generals and gods.
In the late nineteenth century, involvement and interest in painting was also popular among the middle class, who flocked to the Salon in Paris, and could afford to buy works from dealers. It is no coincidence that Landseer, Klimt, Hodler and Bonnard all painted fables early in their careers, before they had secured rich patrons.
In Britain, in particular, the increasing involvement of the middle class in art led to moralising narrative paintings and ‘problem pictures’, which in some cases at least might be viewed as primarily visual fables – although examples of visual art being the first medium with which to tell a story are normally thought to be exceedingly rare. In the twentieth century, the paintings of Paula Rego, Peter Doig, and Stuart Pearson Wright, among others, tell novel fables of their own.
Hopefully painting fables is now here to stay.