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Art and Science in Oudry's Animal Portraits

I keep going back to animals. They're a subject with great potential. Our interactions with them include fear, awe, respect, reverence, food (which can go both ways), transportation, companionship, pest, guide, and subject. Often, I'm just thrilled by their beauty and want to capture that quality. Sometimes, in a painting, they seem to express a sentiment more clearly than humans. Perhaps, its that animals embody the mystery of existence in a way humans don't.

Ape and Model / Zokosky  
Observer and observed: Ape and Model, Oil on panel, 24 x 26 in., 2002
Courtesy Peter Zokosky
 
Finally, I can't help but admire their beautiful and efficient design—what they do, they do so well. Anatomically, all mammals, pretty much, utilize the same blueprint. The same muscles and bones show up across the spectrum, but the variations on the basic design are fascinating to study.

One of the most satisfying things about Oudry and other 18th-century painters is the balance they achieved between a romantic, subjective interpretation and an accurate, objective, scientific portrayal. Art and science seemed to coexist more comfortably in the past. One can enjoy the drama of his paintings and also get a true sense of the scale and structure of the animals he painted. His technique is that of a trained professional, confident in what he could do and proficient in how to go about the business of making a painting. With good technique and practice, Oudry's energy went into making remarkable images.

Oudry's technique of keeping the shadow areas thin, warm, and transparent and building up the light areas with thicker opaque paint adds to the sense of optical realism. His selective lighting typically "spotlights" the center of interest while it adds drama. He seems to take great care to present the character of each animal. He shows us the sinuous, coiled energy of a leopard or the stoic, stable tranquillity of a rhinoceros. Speaking as a contemporary artist, I look forward to learning much from Oudry.



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