Imagine, for a moment, an elephant. Do you picture a wizened beast with thick, textured skin, droopy ears, and a curving, wrinkled snout? Or do you conjure a clean-lined biped donning a green three-piece suit, golden yellow crown, and spats? In the Company of Animals, an exhibition at New York’s Morgan Library and Museum, has a bit of both, featuring Rembrandt’s sketch of a 17th-century pachyderm named Hansken and Jean de Brunhoff’s dandy Babar amongst the 80 works of art, literature, and music on display.
The pieces, which span nearly 5,000 years, are equally wide ranging in both medium and message, and show the complex relationship between the artist and his animal muse. Oftentimes, the animals represent more than their flesh and blood, such as when a lion makes an appearance in a fable from Aesop or a snake emerges from the branches of an apple tree in Albrecht Dürer’s engraving of Adam and Eve. Sometimes they are to be heard, and not seen, like the menacing skulk of the French Horns in Russian composer Sergey Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf. And throughout, new insights are offered on well-known works. Did you know that Edgar Allen Poe’s iconic raven was, in initial drafts, a parrot? Apparently it seemed more plausible to have a bird who could actually quoth “nevermore.” Lots more to learn at the exhibition, which will be on display through May 20th. In the meantime, enjoy a few unbelievable highlights.