Furry Friends in the National Gallery

From leaping dogs, to wide-eyed cats and squirming eels, the National Gallery is packed with paintings of animals. Our new walk, Family Menagerie: Animals in Art takes children on an adventure through this treasure trove of furry friends and curious creatures to discover the enduring importance of animals to the lives of hunters, merchants, monarchs and children. We asked four of our top docents to tell us about their favorite animal paintings in the collection and what these works mean to them.

Pisanello, The Vision of Saint Eustace

Antonio Pisanello, The Vision of St. Eustachius, c.1438-42. National Gallery, London. Image: The Bridgeman Art Library


“This painting by the Italian artist Pisanello shows the startled Saint Eustace staring at a mini crucifixion scene that has sprung up between a stag’s antlers. This mystical vision was supposed to have occurred near Rome in the second century AD, but the huntsman and animals might represent any hunt in Europe during the medieval period when the artwork was made. The hunting of big game was the preserve of the nobility and was an opportunity for the wealthy to hone and display their battle skills during peacetime. Hunting dogs during the medieval era were well cared for and greyhounds in Britain had a particularly good deal since only the very wealthy were allowed to own them. When looking at the painting, I wonder where the artist found his animal models – it is quite possible that they were the treasured pets of the artwork’s patron. It is also fun to imagine what they might have been called since medieval dog names could be quite inventive. Amiable, Crab, Nosewise, Swepestake, Smylfeste, Troy and Trynket were all popular choices!” – Francesca Herrick

Pietro Longhi, The Exhibition of a Rhinoceros at Venice

Pietro Longhi, The Exhibition of a Rhinoceros at Venice, 1751 National Gallery, London. Image: The Atheneum


“This is one of my favourite animal paintings in the collection because it’s not just a painting of a rhinoceros but a painting of a minor celebrity. It makes me think of a modern day performer on tour. Miss Clara, as she was called, was originally from India.  Her life changed when she was acquired by a Dutch sea captain who took her on a tour around Europe for 16 years.  She was reportedly only the fifth rhino to be seen in Europe since Roman times and so attracted a lot of attention. Her likeness was recorded in all sorts of different ways, from tapestries to medals, to this painting.  The last stop on her tour, which included London, was Venice where she was painted by the local aristocracy’s favourite artist, Pietro Longhi. Here Miss Clara munches on some hay, looking dejected at the end of her epic travels.  Her audience are a group of Venetian revellers who are dressed up in masks and costumes in celebration of the Venice carnival. The man on the left of the picture with a whip holds her horn, which she had rubbed off against her cage bars. Longhi painted the rhino as a souvenir for a local nobleman but the picture also shows the effects of captivity on wild animals.” – Elena Greer

Judith Leyster, A Boy and a Girl with a Cat and an Eel

Judith Leyster, A Boy and a Girl with a Cat and an Eel, c.1635 National Gallery, London. Image: The Atheneum

“My favourite pet painting is by the Dutch artist Judith Leyster. It shows two mischievous children who are tempting a cat with an eel and the little girl is pulling its tail, so they are not being very nice to it. But the cat is going to be ok – his paw is spread and his claws are out – he is looking at us with an expression that says “I am going to start scratching in a moment and these kids are not going to be happy”. The painting has a lesson for us, it is warning us about the consequences of being naughty. And I love this painting because I have two cats and they look exactly like this when they get annoyed!” – Sarah Ciacci

William Hogarth, The Graham Children

William Hogarth, The Graham Children, 1742 National Gallery, Room 34
William Hogarth, The Graham Children, 1742. National Gallery, London. Image: The Bridgeman Art Library

“This family portrait has the scariest eyes in the National Gallery! The eyes belong to the cat poised on the back of the chair in which young Richard Graham (aged 7) sits. Richard is teaching a caged goldfinch – the bird often associated with the crucifixion of Christ because it is said to have got its red patch from dipping its head into Christ’s blood – to sing by playing it tunes on his little bird organ. Anna Maria, Richard’s younger sister is preparing to dance but the bird is not. It is terrified, utterly panicked by the sight of that scary cat’s eyes. The contrast of childish delight and a frightening world is placed side by side. On the left, Henrietta is holding two cherries in her left hand and with her right hand she tenderly grasps the wrist of her younger brother Thomas who is in a sort of go-kart. It is a beautiful depiction of a loving older sister with her happy brother. But look again – and above the head of Thomas on a stand in the corner of the room is a clock with a figure of Old Father Time scything up the dead. Thomas died when Hogarth was working on this painting. Now the cherries and the bowl of fruit and the flowers in various stages of ripeness have a different meaning. Here we see childish pleasure mixed with tragedy.” – Philippa Owens