What drives people to represent animals in art, tigers especially? What roles do they fulfil in paintings and sculptures? Looking over the tigers in the Art UK database I'm more and more convinced that you could tell the history of art purely through representations of tigers. While I can't promise to do that in this story, I can hopefully give you a sense of the range of representations that are out there – and persuade you to take a closer look at some of them yourself.

Tiger, Tiger

Tiger, Tiger 1957

William Redgrave (1903–1986)

University of Chichester, Otter Gallery

Tigers are hard to see in the wild. One reason for that is that they are shy, secretive animals, with a talent for keeping hidden. The spectacular black, orange, and white of their fur may stand out in some contexts, but in most of the habitats in which tigers have traditionally lived, their striped coats have helped them blend in (alluded to in William Redgrave's wonderful painting above).

The other reason that tigers are hard to see in the wild is that there are very few of them to be found there. In recent decades, tigers have become very closely associated with the conservation movement, especially in India. Some have questioned the wisdom of concentrating so much attention and funding on just one charismatic species.

However, the numbers remain startling. The IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) estimates that numbers of wild tigers have fallen from around 100,000 to less than 4,000 in the last century. During this period the tiger has lost more than 93 per cent of its historic range. No wonder tigers are hard to see.

For an art historian like me, tigers are nevertheless a familiar sight. As I explore in this story, there is no shortage of tigers in museums and art galleries across the UK. In fact, one of my first memories of an art gallery involves a tiger. For many children the highlight of a visit to London's National Gallery is Henri Rousseau's Surprised!

Surprised!

Surprised! 1891

Henri Rousseau (1844–1910)

The National Gallery, London

I remember my own surprise on first seeing this huge painting of a tiger caught in a storm in a jungle. I recall equal astonishment at encountering Edward Armitage's similarly large Retribution, a rather more bloodthirsty painting that used to hang in one of the ground floor galleries of Leeds Art Gallery.

Retribution

Retribution 1858

Edward Armitage (1817–1896)

Leeds Museums and Galleries

While these two tiger paintings represent only the tip of an iceberg of tiger-related art, they have qualities that are typical. In both cases, they were certainly made by artists who had never seen a tiger in the wild. Rousseau never left Paris, and relied on zoological specimens, taxidermy, and other artists' impressions, to construct his picture. Armitage, who never went to India, would have leaned on similar sources to piece together his painted tiger.

But maybe realism wasn't their goal: these were never intended to serve as visual aids for the natural sciences. These tigers, like most of those that appear in nineteenth-century paintings, have more of a symbolic function.

In Armitage's case, the tiger represents the Indian Rebellion of 1857 being ruthlessly quashed by the figure of Britannia on the left. It's a tasteless example of imperial propaganda.

Rousseau's tiger is harder to read, but his so-called 'jungle paintings' are often understood as colonial fantasies, serving up a slice of the exotic for western audiences.

Tiger Hunt

Tiger Hunt c.1780–1790

Peter Francis Bourgeois (1756–1811)

Dulwich Picture Gallery

The theme of Empire is central to many representations of tigers, whether explicitly (as in the case of Armitage, or Tipu's Tiger in the V&A) or implicitly, as in the case of Indian works of art that have entered British collections through imperial networks.

More generally, the theme of violence against tigers is unignorable. Although tiger populations suffered their greatest dip in the last two centuries, humans have been hunting tigers, or imagining tiger hunts, much longer than that.

The Tiger Hunt

The Tiger Hunt

Auguste Nicolas Caïn (1822–1894)

North Lanarkshire Council / CultureNL

A Tiger Hunt

A Tiger Hunt

Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640) (after)

National Trust for Scotland, Fyvie Castle

The fearsomeness of the tiger has proved irresistible to artists across all cultures – and the institution of the tiger hunt has clearly held an important symbolic function.

Design for Tiger Hunting Mural in the Cabaret Theatre Club

Design for Tiger Hunting Mural in the Cabaret Theatre Club 1912

Charles Ginner (1878–1952)

Yale Center for British Art

To kill a tiger, the largest and reputedly the strongest of the big cats, has long been seen as a test of masculinity. Could it be that what is surprising the tiger in Rousseau's painting is an off-stage hunter with a gun? Such a scenario is brought frighteningly to life by Henry Whiting of Norwich, whose own Tiger Hunt leaves us in no doubt as to the effect that firearms would have on the balance of power between man and tiger.

Hatwell's 'Gallopers': Tiger Hunt

Hatwell's 'Gallopers': Tiger Hunt (bottom centre panel)

Henry Whiting (c.1839–1931)

The Fairground Heritage Trust

Paintings and sculptures of people, or other animals, attacking tigers are all too common – as, sadly, are images of dead tigers.

Fight between a Lion and a Tiger

Fight between a Lion and a Tiger 1797

James Ward (1769–1859)

The Fitzwilliam Museum

Many of these seem pleasant enough at first sight. For instance, the artist John William Godward specialised in paintings of young women lounging around in faux-classical settings. On the Balcony represents three young women enjoying a summer afternoon in a house overlooking the Mediterranean.

On the Balcony

On the Balcony 1898

John William Godward (1861–1922)

Manchester Art Gallery

Expectation, meanwhile, portrays a single woman lying with a feathered fan in a similar setting, anticipating what we may presume is the return of a lover.

Expectation

Expectation 1900

John William Godward (1861–1922)

Manchester Art Gallery

In both cases, a tiger-skin rug offers a soft cushion for the hard white marble. Such rugs regularly appear as props in Victorian paintings, usually juxtaposed with young women.

John Collier goes a step further in some of his works. In The Death of Cleopatra, the Queen lies dead on a couch sculpted into the shape of a lion, which sits on a tiger skin.

The Death of Cleopatra

The Death of Cleopatra 1890

John Collier (1850–1934)

Gallery Oldham

The mythological Young Girl Draped in a Tiger Skin represents a tiger skin robe.

Young Girl Draped in a Tiger Skin

Young Girl Draped in a Tiger Skin (once said to be Bacchus)

John Collier (1850–1934)

St John's College, University of Cambridge

Evidently both Godward and Collier owned, or had easy access to, tiger skins: not surprising when you consider the tens of thousands of tigers that were shot by British colonialists in the nineteenth century. Tiger skins, imported back to Europe in large numbers, became a fashionable commodity and source of intrigue.

Another late-nineteenth century painting, by the Belgian painter Alfred Stevens, presents another perspective on the fashion for tigers.

The Present

The Present about 1866-71

Alfred Emile Léopold Joseph Victor Stevens (1823–1906)

The National Gallery, London

In The Present a young woman stares at a miniature tiger on a table. It is, as the title suggests, a gift from a friend or lover. It's not clear whether the gift is appreciated (she strikes me as a little bemused), but it's likely that the sculpture represents the wider trend at the time for historical Japanese art.

Although tigers haven't lived in Japan since prehistoric times, they have always formed a key part of Japanese culture. Here, as in Chinese art as well, they take on a range of roles, as evidenced by objects in two major collections: The Oriental Museum in Durham, and the Wellcome Collection in London.

A Leaping Tiger

A Leaping Tiger

unknown artist

Wellcome Collection

Tiger

Tiger

unknown artist

Durham University

Many of these works are related to Buddhism, and view relations between humans and tigers in a different way. In one Jataka tale, recounting a past life of the Buddha, Prince Sattva sacrifices himself to feed a hungry tiger.

An Arhat with Ring and Tiger*

An Arhat with Ring and Tiger* 18th C

unknown artist

National Museums Scotland

Meanwhile, Hattara Sonja, a disciple of the Buddha, was depicted with a companion tiger.

Hattara Sonja with Tiger

Hattara Sonja with Tiger 1837

unknown artist

National Museums Scotland

The theme of the tamed tiger also appears in Hindu art. Tigers appear most commonly in images relating to the Hindu goddess Durga, who is usually represented riding a tiger.

The Goddess Durga Slaying the Demon Mahishasura

The Goddess Durga Slaying the Demon Mahishasura 19th C

unknown artist

McLean Museum and Art Gallery – Inverclyde Council

Another Hindu image from the Wellcome Collection shows the sage Rishi Vyaghrapada – a holy man, and devotee of Shiva – with the legs of a tiger.

Rishi Vyaghrapada

Rishi Vyaghrapada 19th C (?)

Indian School

Wellcome Collection

During the twentieth century, understanding of diminishing tiger populations, and growing awareness of conservation issues in general, meant that images of tiger hunts became less common. This doesn't mean that tiger hunting didn't – and doesn't – still exist: sadly, it very much does. It simply means that artists have largely sought to represent tigers less as ferocious killers, and more as noble victims.

When I looked at the tigers on the Art UK database with my nine-year-old son, he was drawn to paintings made in the latter half of the twentieth century – paintings that echoed his own experiences of seeing tigers on natural history documentaries. Some of these appear to show tigers in their natural habitats.

Tigers

Tigers

John Charles Dollman (1851–1934)

Natural History Museum, London

However, it is very likely that they were painted either from photographs, or from animals in captivity. At least one of them – Tiger, by an unknown artist – shows clear signs of being painted from an animal in a zoo.

Tiger

Tiger late 20th C

unknown artist

Birmingham City University

Looking down on a tiger from above is the kind of view you are likely to have in such places, where animals are often situated in sunken enclosures.

Tiger on the Lookout

Tiger on the Lookout c.1995

Dharbinder S. Bamrah (1965–2007)

Zoological Society of London

A final theme demands discussion. As I wrote above, Henri Rousseau's tiger represented one of my earliest encounters with a tiger in art. By that age, however, I had already encountered many tigers in prose and poetry, from Judith Kerr's The Tiger Who Came to Tea, to Shere Khan in Kipling's The Jungle Book (perhaps better known through its Disney adaptations), and William Blake's famous poem The Tyger.

 
 
 
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These texts represent tigers with varying degrees of realism; nonetheless, you can't deny their cultural appeal, reflected in public art collections. There are currently three artworks on Art UK called Tiger, Tiger, (and several more with the 'tyger' spelling) in homage to Blake, and one sculpture of Shere Khan.

Tiger, Tiger

Tiger, Tiger 1985–1992

Eileen Cooper (b.1953)

Wolverhampton Arts and Heritage

Shere Khan, the Tiger

Shere Khan, the Tiger 1930

Phyllis Mary Bone (1894–1972)

Royal Scottish Academy of Art & Architecture

One final image. Given the complex relationship between humans and tigers, most of the artworks discussed above raise issues that are important yet troubling. Images of humans hunting and killing tigers are not pleasant to look at. For this reason, I was somewhat relieved to come across Edward Bawden's linocut Girl with Young Tiger.

Girl with Young Tiger

Girl with Young Tiger 1991

Edward Bawden (1903–1989)

Fry Art Gallery

Unlike Alfred Stevens's earlier painting, in which a young woman receives a Japanese tiger sculpture as a present, here a young woman presents a living tiger to a man. His resulting astonishment, and the smile on her face, are hard to forget.

Samuel Shaw, Lecturer in History of Art at the Open University, and co-founder of Art and Ecology, a project that brings together historic objects from collections across the UK to change public understanding of today's ecological crisis

Samuel's 2018 book, Zebra, was published as part of Reaktion's Animal Series

This content was supported by Freelands Foundation as part of The Superpower of Looking

Discover our learning resource on Rousseau's Surprised!