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Every year, millions of people across the world gather with family and friends to celebrate the Lunar New Year. In Chinese tradition, each year is designated one of twelve animals – this is known in the west as the Chinese zodiac.

There are various legends that explain how this ancient tradition came about. Perhaps the most famous is the 'Great Race', where the mythical Jade Emperor decided to name the years after the animals in the order they came to him. In order to do so, they had to cross a river. The rat hitched a ride on the ox, and thus became the first animal of the cycle.

Boots and Rats

Boots and Rats 1947

M. Tudor (active 1945–1947)

Lakeland Arts

Another story tells how the Buddha asked for visitors when before his departure from earth, but only twelve animals came. As a reward, the Buddha named the years after each animal as they came before him.

Here are the twelve animals as represented in UK art collections – in all sorts of ways and mediums!

1. Rat (born in 2020, 2008, 1996, 1984, 1972, 1960, 1948)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, in western art rats are usually represented as vermin, as they have been associated with carrying disease.

The Rat

The Rat

Félix Pissarro (1874–1897)

The Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology

They are shown as creatures to be caught and killed – and in this desperate case, depicting the food shortages during the siege of Paris, even eaten!

A Rat Seller during the Siege of Paris

A Rat Seller during the Siege of Paris 1871

Narcisse Chaillou (1837–1896)

Museums Sheffield

2. Ox (born in 2021, 2009, 1997, 1985, 1973, 1961, 1949)

In the west, the ox is usually thought of in the same breath as farming – ploughing the soil with a team of oxen. This rather square example is typical of how livestock was once painted – you can read more about rectangular cows in this story.

A Durham Ox

A Durham Ox 1804

George Garrard (1760–1826)

Beamish, The North of England Open Air Museum

Artists have depicted how two oxen may be yoked together, such as this twentieth-century example by Mary Fedden.

Oxen in Tuscany, Florence

Oxen in Tuscany, Florence 1956

Mary Fedden (1915–2012)

Herbert Art Gallery & Museum

Fun fact: the name 'Oxford' means the same as 'Bosphorus'!

Oxen have been domesticated for millennia, being used as a draft animal as far back as ancient Egypt.

3. Tiger (born in 2010, 1998, 1986, 1974, 1962, 1950)

The majestic tiger has long captured the gaze of artists. This trio of tigers by the magnificently named Julius Caesar Ibbetson feels slightly posed, though – demonstrating a large helping of artistic licence.

Tigers in a Jungle

Tigers in a Jungle 1800–1817

Julius Caesar Ibbetson (1759–1817)

Paintings Collection

Today, many tiger species are endangered, and looking back at artworks with 'tiger' in the title, it's striking how many of the older works are of hunting tigers, rather than celebrating their beauty.

Tiger

Tiger 1987

Robert Donald Stokle (1930–2008)

Atkinson Art Gallery Collection

Thankfully conservation work by zoos and charities is now more commonplace, but there's always more to be done to save tigers from extinction.

Tiger on the Lookout

Tiger on the Lookout c.1995

Dharbinder S. Bamrah (1965–2007)

Zoological Society of London

This local protector deity may have been absorbed into the Buddhist faith – he protects the Buddhist teachings but can also safeguard from disease and negative influences.

And let's not forget one of the nation's best-loved works, Henri Rousseau's Surprised!, in the collection of The National Gallery.

Surprised!

Surprised! 1891

Henri Rousseau (1844–1910)

The National Gallery, London

4. Rabbit (born in 2011, 1999, 1987, 1975, 1963, 1951)

Unlike tigers, rabbits are cute and fluffy (unless in a Monty Python film).

Rabbits

Rabbits c.1856–c.1882

Joseph Thomas Wilson (1808–1882) (attributed to)

Laing Art Gallery

There are loads of examples of bunnies on Art UK. It's almost like they've been breeding. You can read more about rabbits in this story.

White Rabbit

White Rabbit 2012

Simon Hedger

Vaughan Street, Llandudno, Conwy

5. Dragon (born in 2012, 2000, 1988, 1976, 1964, 1952)

Dragons are a popular choice for artists – they feature in many myths and legends, as well as tales of saints (Saint George, Saint Michael, etc.).

Chinese Dragon

Chinese Dragon

unknown artist

North Lincolnshire Museums Service

Chinese dragons are often portrayed quite differently, as positive forces and not antagonists of the story.

Dragon's Head

Dragon's Head 1644–1911

unknown artist

Bristol Museums, Galleries & Archives

Many of us will have seen parades with Chinese dragons dancing around, as in this work from the mid-nineteenth century.

Rather than show you the gruesome slaying of dragons, here's one that's enjoying a folk dance – it seems to have Morris dancing bells on its legs!

The Dragon

The Dragon 1930

William George Simmonds (1876–1968)

English Folk Dance and Song Society

And if you're in Dundee, watch out for this beast...

The Dragon

The Dragon 1992–1994

Alastair Smart (1937–1992) and Tony Morrow (1954–2021) and Powderhall Bronze (founded 1989)

Murraygate, City of Dundee, Dundee

6. Snake (born in 2013, 2001, 1989, 1977, 1965, 1953)

Again, snakes in the west get a bad deal – tied up with notions of Adam and Eve and Original Sin. But their beauty can be bewitching, as in this stunningly coloured representation by the prolific artist of the natural world, Marianne North.

Flor Imperiale, Coral Snake and Spider, Brazil

Flor Imperiale, Coral Snake and Spider, Brazil c.1873

Marianne North (1830–1890)

Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

The outward simplicity of a snake's anatomy has suggested playing around with lines, as in this Sidney Nolan piece.

The Snake

The Snake 1971

Sidney Nolan (1917–1992)

Britten Pears Arts

By contrast, this watercolour by Bhawani Das is one of a collection of over 300 natural history illustrations commissioned in Calcutta between 1777 and 1783, by Lady Mary Impey and her husband Sir Elijah Impey, Chief Justice of Bengal. The works provided an accurate record of many newly identified species.

Snake, Grey-Green in Colour

Snake, Grey-Green in Colour 1782

Bhawani Das (active 1777–1783)

Wellcome Collection

Cultures in other parts of the world also include snakes in their myths and legends. This is a painting by Aboriginal Australian artist Dinny Nolan Tjampitjinpa.

Snake Dreaming

Snake Dreaming

Dinny Nolan Tjampitjinpa (c.1922–1989)

The Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust

7. Horse (born in 2014, 2002, 1990, 1978, 1966, 1954)

Horses are frequently depicted in western art, whether as a knight's steed, a farm animal or a racehorse. This sculpture by Elisabeth Frink drew on both Chinese portrayals of horses and also the cave paintings at Lascaux.

Chinese Horse III

Chinese Horse III c.1990

Elisabeth Frink (1930–1993)

The New Art Gallery Walsall

Here's one of the most famous horses in art – Whistlejacket in The National Gallery, painted by George Stubbs, one of the greatest of all animal painters.

Whistlejacket

Whistlejacket about 1762

George Stubbs (1724–1806)

The National Gallery, London

8. Goat, sheep or ram (born in 2015, 2003, 1991, 1979, 1967, 1955)

There is a surprisingly large number of artworks featuring sheep, goats and rams on Art UK – possibly one artist started the trend and then everyone else followed...

This ram by Eduardo Paolozzi is in the collection of Maggie's London.

Ram

Ram

Eduardo Luigi Paolozzi (1924–2005)

Maggie's London

This carved steatite sheep is actually Chinese in origin. The Chinese word used in the zodiac (yang, 羊) actually means both 'sheep' and 'goat'.

Sheep

Sheep

unknown artist

Durham University

As well as sculpture, painters liked to paint a sheep or two. Here's a fabulous work by Rosa Bonheur – you can read more about her in this story.

Sheep in the Highlands

Sheep in the Highlands 1857

Rosa Bonheur (1822–1899)

The Wallace Collection

But apart from rural idylls, mainly sheep and goats seem to crop up as delightful little fun things in art. Here's Mabel Pakenham-Walsh's Sheeps in Hell...

Sheeps in Hell

Sheeps in Hell 1970–1990

Mabel Pakenham-Walsh (1937–2013)

Amgueddfa Ceredigion Museum

...and John Duncan Fergusson's cute wee golden goat.

Goat

Goat 1921

John Duncan Fergusson (1874–1961)

Perth & Kinross Council

But we couldn't leave the ovine section without a tribute to the GOAT of sheep, Aardman's Shaun the Sheep.

Wish Ewe Were Here (Shaun the Sheep)

Wish Ewe Were Here (Shaun the Sheep) 2015 or later

Josh Williams and Aimee Williams

Queens Road, Clifton, Bristol City, Bristol

9. Monkey (born in 2016, 2004, 1992, 1980, 1968, 1956)

Monkeys have featured in many works of art, sometimes as symbols, sometimes as satire. This fine simian looks as if he commissioned Stubbs for a portrait!

A Monkey

A Monkey 1799

George Stubbs (1724–1806)

Walker Art Gallery

Fans of 1970s TV will perhaps remember Monkey, based on a sixteenth-century Chinese tale, Journey to the West. This painting from the Horniman is by an unknown artist from Hong Kong. It shows the Monkey King, Sun Wukong, a key character in the novel (and series).

The Monkey King

The Monkey King 20th C

unknown artist

Horniman Museum and Gardens

Sometimes what's required to get the sense of an animal is a few simple lines. This silhouette gives an excellent impression of a monkey in full jump.

Red Monkey

Red Monkey 1978

Peter Kinley (1926–1988)

Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre

Possibly the weirdest part of this list is the next painting, showing monkeys at a barber-surgeon's. But it's not that uncommon! This is an example of a genre known as singerie, where monkeys replaced humans in the artwork, often with a satirical edge.

A Monkey Barber-Surgeon's Establishment

A Monkey Barber-Surgeon's Establishment

David Teniers II (1610–1690)

Wellcome Collection

10. Rooster (born in 2017, 2005, 1993, 1981, 1969, 1957)

Roosters (or cockerels) seem to have the reputation of being a bit pompous in western tradition. This can be found all the way back in the medieval tales of Chanticleer and the fox, where the cunning fox outwits the rooster.

Rooster

Rooster c.1976

unknown artist

Sheffield Hallam University

The strutting roosters seem to own the place in this painting.

White Rooster Day

White Rooster Day 1983

Barbara Moment (b.1928)

American Museum & Gardens

Even close up, roosters can be portrayed as perhaps proud and preening.

The Rooster

The Rooster 1899

Edwin John Alexander (1870–1926)

The Fleming Collection

This close-up linocut gives a sense of the quick motion chickens tend to use when something unexpected is happening...

Cockerel Turning Round

Cockerel Turning Round 1956–1957

Michael Rothenstein (1908–1993)

Fry Art Gallery

11. Dog (born in 2018, 2006, 1994, 1982, 1970, 1958)

Dogs... humans' best friends? Certainly they can claim to be one of the oldest domesticated animals, and artists LOVED their pooches.

Dog

Dog

unknown artist

Durham University

Whether it's Frisky, Jacob Epstein's mutt...

Frisky, the Sculptor's Dog

Frisky, the Sculptor's Dog 1953

Jacob Epstein (1880–1959)

The New Art Gallery Walsall

...or Gaudier-Brzeska's almost Cubist dachshund...

Dog

Dog 1914

Henri Gaudier-Brzeska (1891–1915)

Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales

...or Frink's very traditionally dog-shaped dog, artists continue to bring to life a variety of breeds.

We are currently unable to display this image due to copyright restrictions

Dog 1986

Elisabeth Frink (1930–1993)

Dorset County Hospital

We wouldn't advocate taking the zodiac animal idea literally, but Paolozzi comes close by combining his features with a dog – he's a good boy, isn't he?

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog 1985

Eduardo Luigi Paolozzi (1924–2005)

Tate

12. Pig (born in 2019, 2007, 1995, 1983, 1971, 1959)

Rounding off the zodiac, it's the porcine protagonists, the pigs... Here's a drawing by none other than Picasso. Or should that be Pig-casso?

Pigs

Pigs c.1906

Pablo Picasso (1881–1973)

The Courtauld, London (Samuel Courtauld Trust)

You may have seen this painting doing the rounds on the internet, as it was featured in the baffling meme 'brother, may I have some oats'.

A Pair of Pigs

A Pair of Pigs c.1850

British (English) School

Compton Verney

Alfred Munnings is best known for painting horses, but his traditional pig scene is a fine example of farmyard painting.

Pigs at Great Thurlow, Suffolk

Pigs at Great Thurlow, Suffolk

Alfred James Munnings (1878–1959)

The Munnings Art Museum

We couldn't delve into the vaults of livestock without mentioning the collection of the MERL (Museum of English Rural Life), now internet sensations thanks to their 'absolute unit' and 'chicken in trousers'. Here's a pig from their collection, which is incidentally available to buy on a range of print to order merchandise...

Prize Pig, Royal Agricultural Show, Cardiff

Prize Pig, Royal Agricultural Show, Cardiff 1872

Richard Whitford (c.1821–1890)

Museum of English Rural Life

Whatever animal year you were born in, Happy Lunar New Year!

恭喜發財 – that's 'Gong Xi Fa Cai' in Mandarin or 'Gong Hei Fat Choy' in Cantonese...

Andrew Shore, Head of Content at Art UK