• Erika Argiolas



Why have animal carcasses taken on a macabre charm over the course of art history?

We know that the carcasses of slaughtered animals are horrible, bloody and gruesome and perhaps this is the reason why they can be considered the most recurrent subjects of figurative art in the last 500 years.

We must wait for the advent of Naturalism in the Sixteenth century to see the first works depicting cow or animal carcasses. Caravaggio in this period had not yet introduced his realistic and shocking painting into the art market, but some predecessors already opposed the predominant Mannerism of the time. This involved the choice of scenes of everyday life and the representation of the humblest social classes, preferred to the classic themes of the Renaissance greats.

A clear example of this type of representations we have with Bartolomeo Passerotti who painted The butcher.

Or the very famous The butcher's shop by Annibale Carracci, painted in 1580.

With these two paintings, both Passerotti and Carracci struck the collective imagination with the inclusion of animal carcasses, but despite their courageous intent, the latter failed to conquer the role of protagonists in the painting. They are in fact inserted within a context of daily life and in which the main subject is still focused on "people" during their daily work activities.

The predominance of the carcass is therefore attenuated by the human figure, but not only! The surrounding environment is made with such minutia that we forget about everything else. The shed where the food is stored or small details visible through a wide open door.

Therefore, in this period we cannot yet speak of Realism, as the truth painted by these artists is not a harsh and difficult truth to accept, but a truth created in an artificial way, studied in detail, inserted in a context, in a scene in which the small details are not neglected at all. But those details are not crude or scandalous details. And that's what makes the difference!


Slaughtered Ox, also known as Flayed Ox, Side of Beef, or Carcass of Beef, is a 1655 oil on beech panel still life painting by Rembrandt. It has been in the collection of the Louvre in Paris since 1857. A similar painting is in Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow, possibly by Rembrandt himself but probably by one of his pupils, perhaps Fabritius. Other similar paintings by Rembrandt or more likely his circle are held by museums in Budapest and Philadelphia.

We are in the 16th and 17th centuries, at this time art is beginning to favor the representation of inanimate objects. Still life - as a subject - begins to spread like wildfire and begins its journey towards transformation into a real pictorial genre.

Among the subjects most represented in this period by the artists we find carcass bodies of game or slaughtered cattle. This new theme, so macabre in everyone's eyes, is essentially caused by two reasons:

  • The depicted lifeless body becomes a symbol of memento mori, which in latin means remember you must die. The representation of the carcasses therefore becomes a real allegory, one of the most effective

  • For the artist, who engages in the representation of this theme, the moment turns into a test of artistic virtuosity, both for the complexity of the forms to represent, and for the monochrome of the colors - red of the muscle and white of the fat - but above all for the unconventionality of the represented subject.

On the other hand, the slaughter, is an indispensable step for the preservation of meat and the moment of slaughter, can be interpreted as a metaphor for prudence, one of the cardinal virtues of man spread by the Renaissance, which invited man to the necessary preparation to face the life.

Rembrandt's painting bluntly exposes the bloody carcass of a dead animal, playing with the effect of red and brown shades to represent its dried blood.

The material, concrete and tangible, is rendered with vigorous and dense brushstrokes, while the human figure has a secondary role, entrusted to the presence of a woman, who looks out to the slaughterhouse. The fulcrum of the composition is the foreshortened carcass, depicted along a diagonal line which, in accordance with the choices of most of the Baroque period painters, gives the image a strong sense of dynamism and depth.

This still life is an exception in the iconographic repertoire of Rembrandt, a Dutch painter known above all for his numerous portraits and historical paintings. The subject, already presents in Flemish and Dutch paintings of the 1840s.


For the expressionist Soutine drama becomes the protagonist. The painting of the unfortunate Russian artist, who comes from a poor and marginalized Jewish family, is characterized by the evocation of psychic states of deep anguish and restlessness through violent and convulsive brushstrokes.

Soutine's painting has a strong timbre, the ox is bleeding and it is not a suspended idol, but it is a killed animal that expresses the weakness of a slaughtered victim.

Soutine had great admiration for Rembrandt because he was told that he was one of the few artists who worked for Jews, Protestants and Catholics - even though, in reality, Rembrandt never really identified himself with any religion.

Soutine chose a painting by Rembrandt to work on and gave it a victimistic meaning, a clear reflection of his experience.

In addition to being inspired by his predecessors, Soutine visited numerous slaughterhouses, located not far from the first Parisian neighborhood in which he resided, and kept in his studio some quarters of ox, ignoring the complaints of his neighbors about the incredible stench. When the gendarmes were called, Soutine defended himself by arguing that art was more important than personal hygiene and, that we had to embalm the carcass, covered with blood, to remain faithful to the initial subject.


Naturalism, in literature and the visual arts, late 19th- and early 20th-century movement that was inspired by adaptation of the principles and methods of natural science, especially the Darwinian view of nature, to literature and art.

Mannerism, Italian Manierismo, (from maniera, “manner,” or “style”), artistic style that predominated in Italy from the end of the High Renaissance in the 1520s to the beginnings of the Baroque style around 1590. The Mannerist style originated in Florence and Rome and spread to northern Italy and, ultimately, to much of central and northern Europe. The term was first used around the end of the 18th century by the Italian archaeologist Luigi Lanzi to define 16th-century artists who were the followers of major Renaissance masters.

Renaissance art, painting, sculpture, architecture, music, and literature produced during the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries in Europe under the combined influences of an increased awareness of nature, a revival of classical learning, and a more individualistic view of man. Scholars no longer believe that the Renaissance marked an abrupt break with medieval values, as is suggested by the French word renaissance, literally “rebirth.” Rather, historical sources suggest that interest in nature, humanistic learning, and individualism were already present in the late medieval period and became dominant in 15th- and 16th-century Italy concurrently with social and economic changes such as the secularization of daily life, the rise of a rational money-credit economy, and greatly increased social mobility.

Realism, in the arts, the accurate, detailed, unembellished depiction of nature or of contemporary life. Realism rejects imaginative idealization in favour of a close observation of outward appearances. As such, realism in its broad sense has comprised many artistic currents in different civilizations. In the visual arts, for example, realism can be found in ancient Hellenistic Greek sculptures accurately portraying boxers and decrepit old women. The works of such 17th-century painters as Caravaggio, the Dutch genre painters, the Spanish painters José de Ribera, Diego Velázquez, and Francisco de Zurbarán, and the Le Nain brothers in France are realist in approach. The works of the 18th-century English novelists Daniel Defoe, Henry Fielding, and Tobias Smollett may also be called realistic.

A still life (plural: still lifes) is a work of art depicting mostly inanimate subject matter, typically commonplace objects which are either natural (food, flowers, dead animals, plants, rocks, shells, etc.) or man-made (drinking glasses, books, vases, jewelry, coins, pipes, etc.).

Baroque art and architecture, the visual arts and building design and construction produced during the era in the history of Western art that roughly coincides with the 17th century. The earliest manifestations, which occurred in Italy, date from the latter decades of the 16th century, while in some regions, notably Germany and colonial South America, certain culminating achievements of Baroque did not occur until the 18th century. The work that distinguishes the Baroque period is stylistically complex, even contradictory. In general, however, the desire to evoke emotional states by appealing to the senses, often in dramatic ways, underlies its manifestations. Some of the qualities most frequently associated with the Baroque are grandeur, sensuous richness, drama, vitality, movement, tension, emotional exuberance, and a tendency to blur distinctions between the various arts.

Definitions taken from https://www.britannica.com/

Recent Posts

See All

To play, press and hold the enter key. To stop, release the enter key.