Dogs and cats have long been the most popular domestic pets, but among children in particular smaller furry creatures such as rabbits and guinea pigs have also been endearing, so long as you’ve been able to keep the grown-ups from disappearing them into a meal. Guinea pigs are particularly interesting in European art, as they weren’t introduced from the New World until the sixteenth century, and have been periodically in vogue ever since.
It has been commonly held that Queen Elizabeth I was so enamoured with Sir Walter Raleigh’s gift of a potato plant that she threw a banquet to feast on the novel vegetable. What is less well-known is that she was an early guinea pig enthusiast.
This wonderful portrait of three unidentified children, painted by an equally anonymous artist in about 1580, is the first visual record of a European with a guinea pig as a pet. Above the children are their ages at the time: the two boys are five and six, and the girl in the middle with the guinea pig is seven.
At the same time, guinea pigs were introduced across Europe, including the Netherlands and Low Countries where they came into vogue by about 1600, and became favourites of Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568–1625) and his son Jan Brueghel the Younger (1601–1678), whose godfather was Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640). I show here just three examples in collaborative paintings by the father with Rubens.
Rubens and Jan Brueghel the Elder painted The Return from War: Mars Disarmed by Venus in about 1610, early in Rubens’ career. There in the foreground, amid the weapons, is a pair of guinea pigs feeding quietly.
In Jan Brueghel the Elder and Rubens’ magnificent Allegory of the Sense of Smell (c 1617-18), another pair of guinea pigs are feeding on vanilla pods in the foreground, not far from an ill-scented civet with its distinctive black and white markings.
Shortly after that, in about 1618, Jan Brueghel the Elder and Rubens joined forces again to paint Flora and Zephyr. Flora sits naked, collecting flowers dropped into a red sheet by an airborne Zephyrus, with two putti assisting. In addition to the rich floral display are pairs of birds and animals, including peacock and peahen, and guinea pigs in the right foreground.
The next guinea pig enthusiast was the Hungaro-British painter Jakob Bogdani (1658–1724). After he moved to London via Amsterdam in 1688, he painted several works featuring the animals, including Capuchin squirrel monkey, two guinea pigs, a blue tit and an Amazon Saint Vincent parrot with Peaches, Figs and Pears in a landscape towards the end of his career, in 1710-20.
Still-Life with Ewer was painted by Alexandre-François Desportes in 1734. He is of particular interest not for this occasional still life, nor for his regular fare of paintings of hunting, but a few precious works which are among the earliest plein air oil sketches.
Johann Amandus Winck’s Still life with a Parrot, Game Fowl, Guinea Pigs and Fruit must have been painted in the late eighteenth century.
When the British artist George Morland painted this genre scene of Selling Guinea Pigs in about 1789, they still had novelty value. This proved highly successful as a print, with 500 copies selling within just a few weeks.
Morland was also the first generally known artist to paint animal portraits of guinea pigs, including this from 1792, which is arguably the finest depiction of the species by any artist.
Disappointingly, guinea pigs don’t appear to have made their mark with the French Impressionists, and it wasn’t until the early twentieth century that they reappear in paintings.
August Macke’s Little Walter’s Toys from 1912 clearly includes a rabbit and guinea pig.
Morland’s door-to-door guinea pig seller was no exception. Other pets were sold to families in a similar way.
George Dunlop Leslie’s undated Goldfish Seller shows a hawker trying to sell goldfish to an upper middle class Victorian family. He may have arrived in the horse-drawn cart glimpsed outside the gate, and wears a bowler hat typical of itinerant traders, with a long green smock. The daughter and young son appear particularly unimpressed.
We are also given the occasional glimpse of a fish-tank stocked with goldfish.
Lovis Corinth’s Woman with a Fishtank from 1911 shows the artist’s wife Charlotte in their flat on Klopstockstraße in Berlin. The aquarium, full of goldfish, is surrounded by quite a jungle of indoor plants – Charlotte’s little corner of vegetation within their city flat.
If you still yearn for more paintings of guinea pigs, you should enjoy Guinea Pig Arcade.