Barye challenged tradition when he submitted his savage animal sculptures to the Paris Salon in the 1830s. At the time, the human figure was considered the noblest subject for high art, while animals -- particularly violent animals -- ranked at the bottom. Despite the lowly status of animals in the artistic hierarchy, Barye's predatory tiger received a Salon medal in 1831. Commissions for both tabletop and monumental animal works followed. In the end, the sculptor would become renowned as an animalier, or animal artist.
Tiger Surprising an Antelope is one of Barye's series of predatory tiger sculptures, inspired perhaps by the arrival of the first live Bengal tiger in Paris in 1831. Barye, along with romantic painter Eugene Delacroix, visited the Jardin des Plantes to observe and sketch the tiger, as well as deer and gazelle. Barye used these sketches from life (he also studied animal dissections and, possibly, stuffed specimens) to conceive his naturalistic works.
Although hunting subjects had been favored for ornamental sculpture in the eighteenth century (as in the gilt rococo firedogs in the period room nearby) Barye's Tiger Surprising an Antelope reflects the romantic notion of the terrible sublime: in the natural world, brute force overwhelms agility, delicacy, beauty. Here, with its slender back legs splayed and front legs pinned, the antelope strains, bawling, as the tiger punctures its throat. Barye first modeled Tiger in wax to achieve the dynamic contours and lines. The finished surfaces display Barye's virtuosity: the reflective vibrancy of polished bronze highlights the subtle stripes and tooled textures of the animal's fur.
Tiger Surprising an Antelope
model c. 1831, cast after 1855
DIMENSIONS: 34.9 x 55.8 x 22.9 cm (13 3/4 x 21 15/16 x 9 in.)
COLLECTION: National Gallery of Art, Washington DC. Gift of Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer
ACCESSION NUMBER: 1967.13.2