Franz Marc and the humanized portrayal of animals in painting

By Nicolas Eber

In all likelihood it is innate to mankind, to the Homo sapiens, to judge everything surrounding him,   as well his really existing as his imaginary environment, on the basis of   his   proper image.  Already the antic poet Xenophanes (570 – 470 b.Chr.) expressed in one of his poems the fact that men are creating their pictures of their gods according to their own picture. To which one could add the question: what else could they do instead?’ This tendency is also the root of the humanization or anthropomorphism in the field of religions, in literature and fine arts, among them also in painting.

The circumstance that Franz Marc is called ‘Painter of animals’, finds its justification besides his extensive late work also through his own statement about the Animalisation of his art, which cannot be understood otherwise than that he had devoted himself largely to the representation of animals.

At the occasion of  the  outstanding  exhibition entitled ‘Kandinsky, Marc and the Blue Rider’ of the Beyeler Foundation in Riehen near Basel in Switzerland,  between   september 9,  2016 and January  22,  2017  where masterpieces from different leading  museums of Europe and the USA were figuring, his works were characterized as pantheistic – in conformity with his own statement according to which he was attempting to achieve a sympathetic understanding  in a pantheistic sense. Pantheism stands  for  the  comprehension  of  Gods  identity  with  the  nature  and   universe. For believers this is more than obvious, it does however hardly contribute to the better understanding of Franz Mark’s paintings.

In my opinion most of Franz Marc’s animal-paintings from the early 1910’s have to be regarded as anthropomorphic.

From its very beginning anthropomorphism had from its two different levels of  opposed directions. With respect to the upper, invisible, immaterial and also mythological and spiritual level, situated in a symbolical sense above mankind, human aspirations   were at all times directed towards the imagination that its representatives are human-like and to the attribution of human characteristics to them. The corresponding tendency consisted therefore in pulling them down to the terrestrial level. In a similar way – at least some of the beings of the animal-word – from the hierarchical downside level of the earthly nature – were since ever imagined as anthropomorphous and   by such imagination   uplifted to the level of mankind.  One could consequently – and remarkably – characterize both tendencies together as a sort of equalization.

The anthropomorphic description of members of the animal kingdom has a long tradition in the literature of the western hemisphere. In this context it should be enough to recall the names of its most important authors. As first, in a chronological order, Aesop, active in the 6th century b. Chr. and thereafter Apuleius and his novel Golden Ass  in the 1st century b. Chr. Thereafter Jean de la Fontaine and Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, who in the 17th and 18th century reanimated Aesop’s animal tales,   from the 18th century   Johann Wolfgang Goethe (Reineke fox), the fables of the Grimm Bothers    and from the 19th century Carlo Collodi (Pinocchio) and the Nobel Prize laureate Rudyard Kipling (Jungle Book);  from the 20th century Felix Salten (Bambi) and last but not least George Orwell (Animal Farm).

In artistic painting – apart from the illustration of literature – the relevant search turns out to remain far and wide vain. In that field the only attempt of importance – the activity of Franz Marc about one hundred years ago – remained surprisingly and remarkably unrecognized respectively ununderstood until these days. To my best knowledge   history of art and art-criticism did not establish evidence or take notice so far of anthropomorphous painting of animals at all.

The circumstance that the humanized, anthropomorphous representation of members of the animal world suffered such an extended delay in the field of painting  compared to literature   is however easy to understand in the light of its restricted possibilities and freedom in comparison to those of  literature. In literature the humanized actors of the happening may have their own names and are able to speak and act and thereby have their own individuality, whereas in  the  field of painting a naturally depicted animal is usually not more than an anonymous representative of the respective genus, without own individuality.

From this it is possible to conclude that the key question regarding the anthropomorphous representation of animals in painting consists in the conferment of an individuality. In other words the authentic  anthropomorphous  painting  and the  individuality of the depicted animals are like Siamese twins: they are  inseparably  tied to each other. Moreover it is indispensable to realize, that they are always products of imagination and that consequently pictures and portraits true to nature can never be considered as anthropomorphous.

Franz Marc had to create the individuality of the animals depicted by him in interest of their anthropomorphous representability exclusively by the means at his disposal: i.e. shape and colour. He was in a way forced to allude with a kind of negation that the animals which he painted were no commonplace ones, but individuals. How he mostly achieved this was with a combination of unnatural coloration – for instance blue or yellow horses, yellow cow, blue fox – of unusual, extraordinary bearings and of impressing glances.

In this context it is instructive what Paul Klee, the friend and colleague in painting noticed  into  his  diary  in  memory  of  Franz Marc’s  soldier’s death: ‘His inclination to the animals  is humane. He is elevating them to himself’. This is very much in the sense as I understand anthropomorphism and further above interpreted it. It is furthermore interesting as well what the lyric Else Lasker-Schüler, wife of the Sturm-Founder Herwarth Walden and a good friend of Franz Marc wrote about him in a necrology: ‘He was the one, who was even able to hear the animals speaking and he glorified their ununderstood souls’.  This, as well,   is in conformity with Marc’s anthropomorphous stiye of painting.

With regard to the question that Marc’s intention did not consist simply  in painting  animals  in the style of the orphic expressionism and  making thereby use of the  palette on the basis of the spectral colors initiated by Robert Delaunay, but that  his clear intention and consideration consisted in  their  anthropomorphous representation, the following sentence from a letter to his wife Maria may serve as a significant  allusion: ‘I have never the desire… to paint the animals as I  see  them, but as they are…’

A so far not mentioned aspect regarding the extended delay in the anthropomorphous representation of animals by painting in comparison to literature is hidden behind the circumstance, that the problem of the missing individuality in painting obviously only became soluble by the means of expressionism. Consequently it seems that besides the problem of individuality a further indispensable criterion of the anthropomorphous painting of animals was hidden in the expressionist style. On the one hand this makes it understandable why the anthropomorphous and at  the same time expressionistic painting of animals only became possible at the  beginning of the 20th century – following the deployment of expressionism. On the other hand, considering that expressionism is merely an ism and therefore similar to all isms  merely  passing by, it makes it at least half-way understandable why Marc’s anthropomorphous animal painting – apart of the circumstance that owing to his ingenuity he was putting the lath very high –  remained virtually without successors. His work may be therefore regarded as the crown and conclusion of a by all means apparently not augmentable development.

For the sake of further supporting the thesis according to which the predominant part of Franz Marc’s animal paintings created between 1911 and 1914 are classifiable as anthropomorphous, the following few illustrations are intended to serve as examples.

Franz Marc: Blue Horse, 1911

Franz Marc: Blue Horse, 1911


Franz Marc: Tiger, 1912

Franz Marc: Tiger, 1912


‘Blue horse in landscape’ and ‘Tiger’ are characteristic examples of Marc’s individualization of animals by means of coloratura and bearing and in the case of the Tiger by its impressive glance.  The three cats in figure 3. can  be clearly interpreted  as showing the reaction of the two parents situated in the background to the provocative behavior of their sprout  in the foreground  of the painting, whereby the  glances, facial expressions and bearings of all three  appear clearly as anthropomorphous.

Franz Marc: Three Cats, 1913

Franz Marc: Three Cats, 1913


Franz Marc: Wolves (Balcan War), 1913

Franz Marc: Wolves (Balcan War), 1913

The anthropomorphous character of the painting reproduced as figure 4 is entirely  obvious and doubtless, whereby already its title alone reveals the relevant intention of the painter, namely the symbolization of the extreme cruelty of the war in question. He is thereby simultaneously delivering a clear proof of the fact that the anthropomorphous representation of animals in other context and in general is not unfamiliar to him.

It is quite obvious, that at least in case of the paintings reproduced in figure 3 and in figure 4 the characterization  anthropomorphous is by far better suitable and explanatory as that of the pantheistic one. Even if these are only two examples chosen from many others, they  permit the significant statement, that Franz Marc in all likelihood as first painter succeeded in solving the problem of anthropomorphous painting of animals and also that based upon these examples also many others of his animal paintings can justifiably   be regarded and classified as anthropomorphous.