Liberty, Utility, Proximity: Animals and Animaliers at the Jardin des Plantes Menagerie in Paris

This article is a part of our “Revolutionary Animals” series, which examines the roles of animals in revolution, representations of revolutionary animals, and the intersections between representation and the lived experiences of animals.

By Maria P. Gindhart

Published in L’Illustration in August 1902, Animal Artists at the Jardin des Plantes [Figure 1] serves as a reminder that the Menagerie, which was an early version of what today would be called a zoo and which was officially created on May 16, 1794, was always meant to attract artists. Simultaneously, this lithograph by Fortunino Matania (1881-1963) underscores the degree to which the ideals of the French Revolution regarding liberty for animals met with carceral realities, as it shows painters and sculptors at work in front of the small cages of a dilapidated building.[1] Early twentieth-century proposals to improve conditions—for both animals and the animaliers who wanted better access in order to depict them—echoed revolutionary rhetoric about allowing zoo animals to live as if in the wild, but utility to humans continued to outweigh true animal welfare at the Jardin des Plantes Menagerie. For many scholars and critics, zoos have always been institutions centered more on the needs of humans than on those of animals, and exploring the role of animal artists is an additional way of engaging with controversies over zoos—past, present, and future.

From the outset, advocacy for the creation of a menagerie as part of the revolutionary rebirth of the Jardin du Roi—France’s most important botanical garden founded by King Louis XIII (1601-1643)—as the Museum of Natural History, included artistic justifications. In 1792, Jacques-Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre (1737-1814), the intendant of the newly baptized Jardin des Plantes, argued that draftsmen and painters would benefit from studying “the forms, the attitudes, the passions” of live fauna.[2] The Menagerie would thus be of artistic utility in addition to serving the needs of naturalists and educating the public.

But what of the animals that the artists and other visitors would come to view and that the scientists would study? Bernard-Germain-Étienne de Lacépède (1756-1825), the Museum’s chair of reptiles and fish, imagined that “the different species of animals will enjoy all the freedom that it is possible to give them.” Surrounded by plants and trees recalling their native habitats, the animals “will present to the eye of the observer the faithful picture of the productions of living nature.”[3] Yet while pastoral enclosures were created for the more docile creatures, the buildings constructed to house other animals spoke very directly of control over them. In the Gallery of Ferocious Animals (1818-1821), which is featured by Matania, the cages were only about twelve square meters in size, with the idea that the confined spaces were necessary to make the wild animals, primarily large felines, more submissive. In addition, the building ended up being damp and moldy with poor air circulation and was difficult to heat in cold weather.[4] As one author recounted about a visit in 1935:

I never breathed stench as nauseating as that which emanates from this place. [. . .] Moreover, the current decay is a real public danger. Rotting beams, peeling walls, the shaky floor, give an impression of misery and of ruin.[5]

And this despite multiple attempts over several decades to improve the living conditions of the animals, including experiments, albeit rare, with allowing some animals to spend time in the open air.[6] Meanwhile consistent financial constraints, as well as the small surface area and urban locale of the Menagerie, which was hemmed in by other parts of the botanical garden where it was housed, by the surrounding city, and by the river Seine, meant that the Menagerie was unable to adapt to new trends in zoo design emphasizing larger, outdoor, more naturalistic habitats for the animals.

In the late nineteenth century, service to artists was still used to justify the Menagerie. As Alphonse Milne-Edwards (1835-1900) wrote in 1891, “artists find, among the animals held in captivity, precious models for their painting or sculpture studies.” He additionally remarked that more than 300 cards giving access to the Menagerie before it opened to the public were distributed to artists each spring.[7] In his lithograph for L’Illustration, Matania depicted the “picturesque spectacle” of artists installed in front of the lion and tiger cages in the morning when they had the Menagerie to themselves.[8] As historian Eric Baratay has commented, the artists resemble copyists in an art museum who turn their attention to the animals in their aligned cages as if they were paintings on gallery walls.[9]

Milne-Edwards also noted the shabbiness of many of the zoo buildings, including the Gallery of Ferocious Animals. The Menagerie director commented that this edifice “is falling apart[;] what is more, the wild animals are never able to go outside, they remain confined in narrow cells and soon die there.”[10] Given the outdated building with its cramped quarters that limited the mobility of the animals and undermined their wellbeing, it seems rather ironic that the description accompanying the lithograph stressed that the artists were “attentive to the movements of the wild animals” and that these denizens of the zoo were “vigorous and superb.” At the same time, it was observed that “the imprisoned animals seem to pose.”[11] (In 1895, it had been perhaps more accurately recognized that French painters almost always represented lions seated or lying down because this was the only way for them to be observed given the insufficient space of their lodgings where “they bump into every corner.”[12]) For some animaliers, being able to see relatively immobile animals up close, as if they were indeed posing, was considered essential, although artists also emphasized the importance of healthy animals able to live outdoors whenever possible.[13] These were often competing desires, which were shared by the Museum’s naturalists who studied the animals scientifically, with proximity coming at a clear price for some animals. The mortality rate was high at the Menagerie, with a 1911 article entitled “Hell for Beasts” noting that a sun bear “suffering from a nervous disease,” a panther whose broken tail had been left untreated for a year, and two lions “devoured by vermin, having no more flesh on their colossal bones” had died over the past twenty-four months.[14]

Figure 2: Gustave Loisel and Désiré Bessin, Colline pour logement de carnivores à l’air libre. Projet de l’auteur, Salon de 1908(Hill for Housing Carnivores in the Open Air. Project of the Author, Salon of 1908), in Gustave Loisel, Histoire des ménageries de l’antiquité à nos jours, vol. 3 (Paris: Octave Doin et fils and Henri Laurens, 1912), Pl. 22.

While Matania conveyed the ongoing attraction of the Menagerie for artists, whether because of or despite its inhabitants being housed in restrictive spaces, zoo reformers of the early twentieth century put special emphasis on the necessity of animal mobility. After official scientific missions to study zoos across Europe, as well as in Canada and the United States, zoologist Gustave Loisel (1864-1933) developed a plan for an “ideal menagerie” [Figure 2], which some hoped would be implemented at the Jardin des Plantes.[15] Recalling Lacépède’s dream of animals “abandoning themselves as in their native land to their games and their dearest movements, sensing neither exile nor the loss of their independence,” Loisel envisioned hillside parks marked by varied terrain and vegetation to allow animals freedom of movement, stressing that the goal was “to give the animals air, sun and space; to force them, or more exactly to incite them to move, to run, to jump, to exercise their muscles and their cerebral activity.” What was beneficial for animals was also advantageous to artists, as these exterior areas would be outfitted with observation posts and enclosed balconies to allow the animals to be safely watched and documented “at all times, in all seasons.”[16]

Loisel was responding to varied input from animaliers, and the ongoing desire for more traditional proximity to animals was met in two ways. First, there was to be a gallery beneath the artificial hills with cages along the sides and a service corridor behind them that artists could access to view the animals from various angles. In addition, a building perpendicular to this gallery included a central studio. Loisel envisaged animals being brought to this studio in a mobile cage from throughout the garden to be drawn, painted, and sculpted. In this, Loisel, who underscored his study of the artistic use of zoos during his missions, was inspired by a studio reserved for artists in the New York Zoological Park’s Lion House (1903). There, a shift cage could circulate on rails in the service corridor between the inside and outside cages. This cage could then be lifted into the studio space, the animal could be let go, and the cage could be lowered. A photograph of the studio [Figure 3] shows a lion in the mobile cage, which in turn is inside a larger enclosure fronted by large-mesh, steel-wire netting. The big cat is thus doubly captive. While Loisel’s proposed studio, like the one in the Bronx, was designed to facilitate the work of animaliers, little thought appears to have been given to the potential trauma to the animals of being moved around according to artistic whims.[17]

In the early years of the Menagerie, as historian Violette Pouillard has argued, “debates about the nature of captivity and the weight of the constraints it imposed upon the animals […] were rapidly solved by Bernardin de Saint-Pierre or Lacépède in favour of the development of an upgraded form of captivity, which should allow for the development of the human uses of animals.”[18] A century later, focusing in part on “the services that the keeping of wild animals in captivity can provide to the studies of animaliers,” Loisel was proposing something similar.[19] After consulting with artists, he incorporated an interior gallery and adjacent studio, as well as hillside observatories and glassed balconies, into his “ideal menagerie.” Loisel clearly could not confer with zoo animals in his planning, but, had he been able to do so, one wonders if they would have considered his proposal for transforming the Jardin des Plantes Menagerie to be at all an improvement. For while artists can avoid all signs of captivity, as those in Matania’s lithograph have done by not representing the bars keeping the lions and tiger imprisoned, the animals kept in zoos cannot escape the reality of their confinement, even when conditions have supposedly been upgraded.[20]

Dr. Maria P. Gindhart is Associate Dean of the College of the Arts and Associate Professor of Art History at Georgia State University in Atlanta. She has published and presented on art displayed in, as well as postcards depicting, the Jardin des Plantes Menagerie. Her current research focuses on sculptures of prehistoric humans in France between 1870 and 1931 and on various aspects of the 1931 Colonial Exposition in Paris.

Title Image: Postcard. TOUT PARIS – les artistes (en herbe) au jardin des plantes, modelage du lion de l’atlas.

Further Readings:

Baratay, Eric, and Elisabeth Hardouin-Fugier. Zoo: A History of Zoological Gardens in the West, trans. Oliver Welsh. London: Reaktion Books, 2002.

Champy-Vinas, Cécilie. “Les sculpteurs au zoo: Sculpter les animaux sauvages, de Barye à Pompon.” Ligeia. vol. 29, no. 145-148 (January-June 2016): 130-139.

Solski, Leszek. “Loisel, Who? – or the Centennial of ‘Histoire des Ménageries.’” International Zoo News. vol. 59, no. 6 (November/December 2012): 67-476.

Vezin, Luc. Les artistes au Jardin des plantes. Paris: Herscher, 1990.

Serna, Pierre. Comme des bêtes: Histoire politique de l’animal en Révolution (1750-1840). Paris: Fayard, 2017.


All translations are those of the author.

[1] See Violette Pouillard, “Visions of Concord: Wild Animals and the Garden of the Revolution (Jardin des Plantes Menagerie, 1793­-c. 1820),” Journal for the History of Environment and Society, vol. 4 (2019): 11-40.

[2] Jacques-Bernardin-Henri de Saint-Pierre, Mémoire sur la nécessité de joindre une ménagerie au Jardin national des plantes de Paris (Paris: Chez P. Fr. Didot, 1792), 13-14.

[3] Lacépède, “Introduction,” in La ménagerie du Muséum national d’histoire naturelle, ou les animaux vivants, by Lacépède and Cuvier (Paris: Chez Miger, Patris, Gilbert, Grandcher, and Dentu, 1801), 6.

[4] Violette Pouillard, Histoire des zoos par les animaux: Impérialisme, contrôle, conservation (Ceyzérieu: Champ Vallon, 2019), 94-97.

[5] André Page, “Au Jardin des plantes: Animaux en captivité,” Ric et rac, vol. 6, no. 305 (12 January 1935), 8.

[6] Pouillard, Histoire des zoos, 97.

[7] A. Milne-Edwards, La ménagerie (Rapport au ministre de l’instruction publique) (Paris: G. Masson, 1891), 12.

[8] “Nos gravures,” L’Illustration, vol. 60, no. 3101 (2 August 1902): 96.

[9] Eric Baratay, “Belles captives: Une histoire des zoos du côté des bêtes,” in Beauté animale, exhibition catalog (Paris: Réunion des musées nationaux – Grand Palais, 2012), 204.

[10] Milne-Edwards, La ménagerie, 20.

[11] “Nos gravures,” 96.

[12] “La nouvelle rotonde des fauves au Jardin des plantes,” Supplément illustré du Petit Journal, vol. 6, no. 228 (31 March 1895), 103.

[13] Gustave Loisel, “Rapport sur une mission scientifique dans les jardins et établissements zoologiques publics et privés des États-Unis et du Canada et conclusions générales sur les jardins zoologiques,” Nouvelles archives des missions scientifiques, vol. 16 (Paris: Imprimerie nationale, 1908), 392-393.

[14] Paul Escudier, “L’Enfer des bêtes,” Le Journal, 21 March 1911.

[15] The “ideal menagerie” is discussed in Loisel, “Rapport,” 369-380; and Gustave Loisel, Histoire des ménageries de l’antiquité à nos jours, vol. 3 (Paris: Octave Doin et fils and Henri Laurens, 1912), 388-405. See also, P. Hachet-Souplet, “Un projet de transformation de la ménagerie du Jardin des plantes,” L’Illustration, vol. 67, no. 3446 (13 March 1909): 178-179.

[16] Lacépède, “Introduction,” 6; Loisel, “Rapport,” 374-380, 386-387, 392; and Loisel, Histoire, 394-398, 402-403.

[17] Loisel, “Rapport,” 232-233, 259, 370-373, 387-393; and Loisel, Histoire, 185-186, 403-405. See also, W[illiam] T. H[ornaday], “The Studio in the Lion House,” Zoological Society Bulletin, no. 10 (July 1903): 97-98.

[18] Pouillard, “Visions of Concord,” 33.

[19] Loisel, “Rapport,” 389; and Loisel, Histoire, 404.

[20] More recently, artists such as painter Gilles Aillaud (1928-2005) and photographer Britta Jaschinski (b. 1965) have been more critical in their representations of zoos.

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