Bringing out the Animal in Art

On Visit the Zoo Day, a look at a unique exhibition at the National Zoological Park, the National Museum of Natural History, and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden: “Animal In Art,” an exhibit and series of “sketch-ins,” that were part of an international campaign for the World Wildlife Fund in the late 1970s. 

Group Drawing a Spider Monkey at Zoo, c. 1976, Smithsonian Archives - History Div, SIA2007-0146. On afternoons in the winter of 1977-78, Alice the Spider Monkey was more than just an endangered animal living at the National Zoological Park. She was the playful muse to artists, professional and amateur alike. Armed with pads and pencils provided by the Zoo, adults and children in puffy winter coats, faces close to the glass, captured Alice’s likeness as she climbed the bars of her habitat. The artists sketched under the guidance of Zoo staff and local artists, on hand to provide help and critique as the pieces came together. 

Alice and other endangered animals like her at the National Zoo were the live models during a series of “sketch-ins” as part of “Animal in Art,” a number of concurrent worldwide exhibitions supporting the World Wildlife Fund. These “sketch-ins” brought participants together to create their own unique pieces that would later be on display at the Zoo. The Zoo described this experience as getting to know Alice and the other animals in “one of the most intense ways there is—transferring its essence into art.” 

Exhibit of Art Work from "Animals in Art, Sketch-ins." Smithsonian Institution Archives, SIA2007-014

Creating a connection between the public and endangered wildlife was at the heart of the “Animal in Art” exhibitions, which took place in over 30 museums in 10 countries, kicking off in the Fall of 1977. Internationally, visitors could see a unique “Animal in Art” exhibition at the Prado in Madrid, The British Museum in London, and the Topkapi Palace Museum in Istanbul, alongside other museums in India, Mexico, New Zealand, South Africa, Switzerland, Turkey, and (as it was known then) West Germany. While each exhibit showcased the individual museum’s collections, they all offered a historic look at mankind’s “perception of animals” in art, as well as highlighted the endangered species the WWF was working to save. It was an undertaking that had never been done by the cultural heritage community before on such an international scale.

A portion of the international

The National Zoo was not the only participant from the Smithsonian Institution. Pictures taken by Kjell Sandved, a behavioral scientists and renowned nature photographer, were on display at the National Museum of Natural History. Sixty of Sandved’s color photos—with subjects ranging from beetles to piranhas to koala bears—were hung by the balcony around the Elephant Rotunda. The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden’s “Animal in Art” exhibit featured more than fifty paintings, some never before on display. Artists showcased included Alexander Calder, Alberto Giocometti, Albert Pinkham Ryder, Joseph Stella and Marsden Hartley.

The Smithsonian-wide events kicked off in October 1977, alongside exhibits in London and Zurich. Stateside, there were opening night events and a film series at the Hirshhorn, as well as a benefit concert by John Denver at the Kennedy Center. Other US museums, including the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County and four museums at Yale University, also took part in the international exhibition.

Boy Drawing a Snake at NZP, by Unknown, 1976, Smithsonian Archives - History Div, SIA2007-0147. In conjunction with the exhibitions, art historian Lord Kenneth Clark wrote a book about animals in art, the proceeds for which went to the WWF. Clark was an international symbol in his own right, famous for hosting the “Civilization” television series, and described as the “quintessential English gentleman…a picture of patrician grace, amiable, knowledgeable and ever so assured,” by People magazine in 1977. 

As Clark wrote in another art history book, “Often in looking at the natural and animal world we joyfully identify ourselves with what we see and from this happy union create a work of art.” It’s that artistic exploration which defined the innovative “Animals in Art” exhibition and helped connect the public with endangered wildlife across the globe—whether it was a museum-goer, a professional artist, or a D.C. child sketching Alice the Spider Monkey. 

Related Collections

SIA RU000326, National Zoological Park (U.S.) Office of the Director, Records, circa 1920-1984, Smithsonian Institution Archives. 

SIA RU000613, Smithsonian Institution Office of the Secretary, Administrative Records, 1972-1984, Smithsonian Institution Archives.

SIA RU000481, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden Dept. of Painting and Sculpture, Exhibition Records, 1968-1993, Smithsonian Institution Archives.

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