Digital Project Proposal: Mapping Animals in Art

One of the most impactful courses I had the pleasure of taking during my undergraduate years was Intro to Animal Studies, during which we learned a great deal about the psychology–and real-life consequences–of human-animal relations. We also talked a lot about the strange and seemingly unavoidable phenomena of anthropomorphism, which, according to Merriam-Webster‘s handy definition, is “an interpretation of what is not human or personal in terms of human or personal characteristics.” Animals are ever-present across many eras of art–a brief jaunt through any major art gallery will support this claim. And while I can’t speak for all of history or art history, I can say I have not run across many scholarly analyses of what depictions of animals in art symbolized, what they represented, and what they can tell us about human-animal relations during a particular historical period (and I must give credit where it’s due: to my wonderful professor who suggested this to us as a potential dissertation topic–thank you!). Through this project, I hope to provide a lens into a particular period or era of art that reveals how people thought about, interacted with, and represented animals.

Sympathy, Briton Rivière (1877)
Rivière was a well-known Victorian era painter who often included animals in his work.

While I have not pinned down the exact era/geographic region I would like to zero in on for this project, the Victorian era (1840-1900) is a fascinating possibility. Depictions of animals in Victorian art range from the deep sentimentality seen in the work of Briton Rivière [above], to religious symbolism evident in William Holman Hunt’s “The Scapegoat” [below].

Using ArcGIS StoryMaps, this project could present analyses of a particular period of art such as this that track how different depictions and interpretations of animals change (or don’t) across time and space, with the ultimate goal of creating a visual representation of how any given society conceptualized and depicted their relationships with animals. If the project were to take on a larger scope, it could also incorporate the art of multiple different countries or regions within the same timeline in order to represent an even fuller image of artistic interpretations of the wider kingdom Animalia.

Through this project, I’m interested in bringing together the worlds of digital, public, and art history. As I mentioned in my print project proposal, the realm of Digital Art History (DAH) is relatively new and in many ways, still in development. This project would take advantage of the excellent digital art repositories that exist thanks to institutions like the National Gallery of Art, while hopefully also adding an interesting interpretive spin into the field discourse.

The Scapegoat, William Holman Hunt (1854-1856)

One Reply to “Digital Project Proposal: Mapping Animals in Art”

  1. Hi Karly,

    This has a ton of promise as a digital project. You have something that is visually compelling and has strong and clear points of interest to a lot of online audiences.

    With that noted, this is a really broad area, so I think it’s going to be important to think through how you go about scoping the project. Your idea about focusing on a time period (like the Victorian era) is a great way to think about approaching this. I think it may also be worth considering which kinds of animals you want to focus on. That is, I could see a case for focusing on domestic pets, (like you could have a whole project just about dogs or cats or dogs and cats). I could also see doing something entirely on representations of more exotic animals, or looking at working animals or animals in agriculture.

    All of that is to say that there are a lot of sub areas that you could focus on. Some of these have much clearer connections to mapping too, and it’s interesting that in the case of mapping you have the ability to think about mapping where the work was created and also the place it is intended to represent.

    In any event, you are off to a great start and if you do decide to run with this project I think it could something that lots of folks could find interesting.

    Best, Trevor

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