Howe Now Brown Cow: A Second Look at Cow Paintings

Courtesy of the Frick Collection/Frick Art Reference Library Archives via Wikipedia

Chances are that among the homes you have visited, you haven’t been in one with a cow painting. In an age where color and originality trumps perfection, the cow is not a favorite subject for wall art.

In the 19th Century, at the height of the cow painting craze, prices reflected the number of cows in a painting. The more cows, the higher the price.

I don’t mean to say contemporary art can’t be perfect, but it’s not so often painterly. With cow paintings, the admiration given to the skill of the artist in representing a thing, a notion and perhaps a mood. I should add there are still artists out there painting cows.

If you try, you may come to realize how hard a cow is to paint (or draw). It looks round, but it’s kind of square. It stands or sits in seemingly uncomfortable positions. It’s likely to be food, and yet the act of painting inspires a fondness for it.

To me, cows are natural to include in a landscape. They convey total calmness. Cows, however, are complex creatures with admirable traits should they be found in humans. They have best friends and get stressed when separated. Researchers have concluded that cows with names treated as individuals produce more milk- almost 500 additional pints a year.

There are many reasons artists paint cows. In the 19th century, they came to represent a longing for a pre-industrial era. The Dutch painted them to show pride in the dairy industry (perhaps similar to cattle paintings in Texas). In the early 19th century, demand for pictures of prized farm animals, principally large, awkward-looking cows was at a fervor. This demand was more than enough reason to paint them.

The first cow painting I came across was at an antique show outside of Columbus, Ohio. We noticed a work by the English painter Thomas Sidney Cooper. He presents cows in a grand matter. The animal is stoic, somewhat removed and might be mistaken for bovine royalty. The cows are a certain part of the landscape, taking their rightful place as well as any tree, fence or mountain.

Online Collection of Brooklyn Museum; Photo: Brooklyn Museum, 28.6_SL1.jpg via Wikimedia Commons

Later we began to notice smaller cows placed in landscapes. We lived in Pittsburgh then, and the Scalp Level School had entered our psyche. Cows aren’t a favorite subject in these paintings, but the larger school, Hudson River, places the animals in many natural scenes. Once in New York we were more formally introduced to the work of romantic landscape painters James and William Hart. Cows were a popular subject, usually secondarily, but sometimes primarily and almost always included.

Grave of James M. Hart, Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn

One day we went to Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn looking for the graves of artists. Among those we found were of the Hart brothers. There’s no better way to say cow painter than to have one on your headstone.

I think that’s a testament to just how important a subject the cow was in the 19th Century.

Artists throughout history have painted cows. This may begin with the prehistoric images in Lascaux Cave. Rembrandt and Titian painted cows, as did Van Gogh and for those fond of counting cows, Andy Warhol made them into wallpaper.

We visited Amsterdam recently and started to look at Dutch paintings more closely. Some of the best cow paintings came from a period of revival in Dutch art.

A field in Holland, by Johannes Hubertus Leonardus de Haas [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
A field in Holland, by Johannes Hubertus Leonardus de Haas [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
In the 1860s, artists of the Hauge School found inspiration in the French Barbizon scenes. Artists like Gerardus “Gerard” Bilders and Johannes Hubertus Leonardus de Haas placed the importance of mood or impression (not to be confused with impressionism) over color. American artists such as Henry Ward Ranger and William Henry Howe traveled to Holland to study. They went on to found the art colony at Old Lyme Connecticut, and the movement morphed into American Tonalism.

It’s hard to find a painting by Howe that isn’t a cow. And what excellent cows they are. The Smithsonian has at least two of his paintings. A work in the Brooklyn Museum is a gift from the artist’s wife.

What I find attractive in cow paintings is the relationship between the animals and the land that is forgotten. Today, farming is mechanized, and few people ever see farm animals. There’s no relationship between milk or beef at the market and an actual animal. But there’s so much to know. Hidden from sight, they are the source of much of the world’s food and suffer for it.

Press Photo labeled Josepha Erica of Eynsham 165170, 1959
Antique Mall Find: Press Photo of prized cow labeled Josepha Erica of Eynsham 165170, 1959

When you see a cow in a painting, no matter a position, it’s looking at you. It’s never a pet, like a dog or a cat, but in the end, much more important to humans. To Hindus, the cow is a symbol of motherhood. Its docile nature makes it a favorite among Buddhists. Cows could also be the death of us all as they contribute as much as 51 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions.

As evidence mounts that animal protein contributes to a myriad of ailments, that may begin to change. I haven’t eaten beef in years and so don’t mind their eyes following me as I pass by a painting.

Whether or not you enjoy a steak now and then, take time to look at cow paintings. There’s more to them than you might expect.