Tigers that roamed the art world, a fierce legacy

The majestic tiger is revered by many cultures for its beauty, prowess, ferocity and wit. As a creature with many symbolic attributes, it has inspired imaginations, paintings and stories around the world.

In China, legend has it that tigers turn white after living for five centuries, and a white tiger would only appear if an emperor ruled with absolute virtue.

Another belief is that the spirit of a tiger would enter Earth after death and become amber.

The tiger represents the greatest earthly power, with the ability to ward off the three major household disasters, namely fire, thieves, and ghosts.

Paintings of tigers are often hung on a wall inside a building facing the entrance to ward off evil spirits.

The first tiger statues in China appeared in the Neolithic period, around 7,000 years ago.

Although a tiger’s actual lifespan is significantly shorter than its millennial reign in folklore, that doesn’t stop mankind from celebrating this ferocious beast.

As we usher in the Year of the Tiger, here’s a look at what a tiger-obsessed sultan has commissioned, artists painting tigers, and artwork showcasing this magnificent creature and all it has to offer embodies.

Tipu Tiger

This 18th century musical automaton, depicting a tiger attacking a European, was made for Tipu Sultan, the ruler of the kingdom of Mysore in India at a time when the British East India Company was expanding the British empire in India.

The sounds produced by the organ in the tiger’s body are meant to sound like the roar of a tiger mingled with the cries and cries of someone in distress. When you turn the crank, the organ plays and the man’s hand goes up, no doubt as a sign of abandonment and to express his helplessness as he is devoured by the beast.

Opinions are divided as to whether this character is a soldier or a civilian, but it has been proposed that the design was inspired by the death of Hugh Munro, a young East India Company cadet, who was killed by a tiger while hunting with his companions.

Regardless, the sultan consistently used the tiger as his emblem, employing tiger motifs on his arms and palace decorations, as well as on the uniforms of his soldiers. His throne also features a large tiger.

Today, Tipu’s tiger is one of the highlights of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, reproduced in many forms of souvenirs such as postcards and stuffed toys in the museum shop.

“The Tiger Hunt” by Peter Paul Rubens (oil on canvas, 1615-1616) depicts an epic clash between man and beast.

On the hunt

In the HBO series Succession, the main advert shot for its first season in 2018 shows Logan Roy, founder of media and entertainment conglomerate Waystar Royco, and his four children, posing in front of Flemish artist Peter Paul Ruben Tiger hunting.

This large painting, representing a tiger hunt, dates from between 1615 and 1616.

This scene incorporates a few other animals, including a lion and a leopard, but the tiger takes center stage, pouncing on a mounted rider who rears up in fear.

At their feet, a tigress tries to save her cubs, carrying one in her mouth while two other cubs cling to her limbs.

The tiger hunt is one of four hunting pictures commissioned by Maximilian I, Duke of Bavaria who reigned from 1597 to 1623, to decorate Schleissheim Palace in Munich, Germany.

“Tiger in a Tropical Storm” by Henri Rosseau (oil on canvas, 1891) was the first of the legendary French artist’s jungle paintings.

A tropical storm

In this 1891 oil painting by French painter Henri Rosseau, the crouching tiger, illuminated by lightning, prepares to pounce on its prey amid a raging storm.

Some claimed these jungle scenes were inspired by his travels through Mexico as a regimental musician.

But the Frenchman had never left France and it is more likely that his inspiration for the vivid greenery of the painting came from the botanical gardens in Paris, such as the Jardin des Plantes, located down the street from where he worked.

This botanical garden also had a taxidermy gallery of exotic animals, so it is possible that he drew some.

Tiger in a tropical storm is Rosseau’s first “jungle painting” which won him recognition and began his famous streak.

His initial submission of this painting was not accepted by the jury of the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture (Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture) in France, so he exhibited it at the Salon des Indépendants instead. , which was open to all artists.

Reviews were mixed – some critics called the painting “childish” and the flat look of its figures did not appeal to everyone. But he won a following among a younger generation of artists, including Pablo Piccaso who admired the liberties he took with his art.

It would be several years later Tiger in a tropical storm before Rosseau produced his later jungle-themed work, such as Scouts attacked by a tiger in 1904 and The hungry lion pounces on the antelope in 1905.

Chinese painter Hu Zaobin is famous for his paintings of tigers.  Hu Zaobin's 'Victory Or Defeat' is featured in this image.Chinese painter Hu Zaobin is famous for his paintings of tigers. Hu Zaobin’s ‘Victory Or Defeat’ is featured in this image.

Beast Mode with Hu Zaobin

The early 20th century Chinese painter Hu Zaobin is famous for his paintings of tigers. Born in Guangdong in 1897, he studied art in China and later traveled abroad to Japan to study Western fine art and Japanese-style painting at the Kyoto Municipal Institute of Art where he developed his now distinctive and famous style of painting the tiger.

In the 1920s, he traveled across Southeast Asia observing and photographing wildlife that would later serve as references for his work.

Hu was based in Hong Kong when World War II broke out. He attempted to return to rural China with his family, but was caught and his paintings confiscated.

He died aged 46, leaving behind some of the most famous tiger paintings of his time.

Victory or defeat, one of his many tiger artworks, is an awe-inspiring artwork that captures the strength and agility of this mighty beast.

Christopher S. Washington