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The Monkey in Art

Part 4

By the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries there was less emphasis on monkeys embodying sinfulness, and a more playful attention paid towards their imitation of the foolish behaviour of man. Monkeys were painted by Jan Brueghel II engaged in Tulip mania: buying, selling, growing, stealing and even urinating on tulips. Teniers showed monkeys dressed as soldiers: drinking, smoking, and in one case court marshalling a cat. The Flemish artist Nicolas Veerendael, a generation younger than Jan Brueghel II and David Teniers II, produced this drawing in which monkeys take the part of naughty schoolboys being punished by the monkey schoolmaster. The idea of imitation remains a key part of the image as schoolboys were taught by rote - in other words trained like little monkeys. These monkeys or little boys are depicted not as sinful figures of evil but rather as naughty. The "cheeky monkey" makes its entrance into art history!

Monkeys appear in the work of a number of eighteenth century artists. Watteau depicted them in the guises of artists or sculptors, and even wearing Chinese costume; thus combining the fashion for monkeys with the new vogue for Chinoiserie (thus retaining their association with exoticism). In this drawing by Huet the costumes worn by the monkeys suggest that it may have been copied from a Netherlandish painting. They wear old-fashioned ruffs, and the monkey on the right wears a hat commonly seen in Dutch and Flemish genre paintings. Their engagement in smoking pokes fun at one of the follies of man.

The English artist and caricaturist Samuel Rowlandson includes a monkey in A Lady Surrounded by her Pets. It sits on the back of the lady's chair and scratches its head in a gesture of puzzlement. The monkey's traditional imitative counterpart, the parrot, sits on the lady's hand and, as its beak is open, it may be that the monkey is puzzled by the apparently human voice emanating from the bird. However, in this gently satirical scene, the monkey's puzzled expression may mirror the viewer's bemusement at why a woman would wish to own three dogs, a cat, four parrots, three squirrels and seven other exotic birds.

Throughout this article I have considered the monkey as an alter ego for man, embodying at worst all his sinful qualities and at best his faintly ludicrous weaknesses. The last image in this article is a natural history illustration, Monkey by the English water-colourist Peter Paillou. Since the sixteenth century, the monkey as an animal has been the subject of scientific interest and Paillou's watercolour is a beautiful example of a natural history illustration. This monkey is depicted in full colour, and meticulous detail. The tree stump that he sits on refers to his natural habitat of the forest and he is shown eating, not the apple of original sin, but his food in the wild of young shoots and leaves. It is in this image of a monkey, in which his difference to man, and status as an independent species is fully apparent, that the most sympathetic portrayal emerges.

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