By Asmita Sengupta
With a doctoral degree in primate ecology under my belt, I consider myself quite the expert on all things primate-y, if you will. Many moons back, I had learnt from a rather engagingly written textbook that there are no primates in Australia, USA-Canada and Europe, unless you counted the Bigfoot and humans (yes, we are one of THEM; in this article though, ‘primates’ strictly refers to non-human primates)! So, imagine my utter shock when I saw a monkey right in the heart of Paris! And this monkey was no mean one either. With a paintbrush in its hand, it was bringing a scene to life on canvas! Fittingly, it did so in the hallowed Musée du Louvre, the largest art museum in the world. After the initial shock, I realized I had plunged into the mesmerizing universe of ‘Singerie’.
Singerie is an art form wherein primates are portrayed aping (no pun intended) human activities. The word owes its origin to ‘singe’ which means monkey in French. As for the activities they are engaged in, the world is the limit. Paintings of this genre depict primates as painters, sculptors, soldiers, musicians, barbers, performing artists and physicians among many others. They are also often engaged in day-to-day activities such as doing laundry, going to school, playing backgammon, smoking tobacco or drinking wine.
The history of depicting monkeys engaged in human activities dates back to Ancient Egypt. However, Singerie as a genre became popular in the 16th century, largely due to the works of Flemish painters and engravers such as Pieter Bruegel the Elder, his son Jan Bruegel the Elder, Pieter van der Borcht, Pieter van der Heyden, and the Teniers brothers – David the Younger and Abraham. What makes this genre unique? There have been many paintings before wherein primates were simply elements within a scene. For example, in Antoine Caron’s 16th century classic ‘Augustus and the Tiburtine Sibyl’, in the large scheme of arches, colonnades, monuments and edifices amidst which Virgin Mary appears, a monkey can be seen descending the stairs at the lower right corner of the painting (Fig. 1). Or, in Paolo Veronese’s ‘The Family of Darius before Alexander’, a chained monkey is used, alongside many dwarves, dogs, halberdiers and pages, to provide a background to the main characters – the family of Darius, Alexander and Hephaestion.
Singerie shows a clear shift from the above convention. In Singerie, a monkey is the focal point, and not just yet another detail. For example, Van der Heyden’s engraving, ‘Marskramer door apen beroofd’ (The Sleeping Pedlar Robbed by Monkeys) depicts monkeys robbing a sleeping pedlar. This work shows a single man amongst several monkeys (Fig 2).
The divide between the Man and the Monkey dissolves with paintings such as Jan Bruegel’s ‘Allegorie der Tulipomanie’ (Allegory of Tulip Mania), where monkeys ARE men or men monkeys! The painting is a satire of the speculators of ‘Tulip Mania’, a period in the Dutch Golden Age, when the prices of certain bulbs of the newly introduced tulips became exorbitant and then saw an all-time low in 1637 (Fig. 3).
But how did monkeys make it to so many European paintings even though there were no primates in Europe? The formation of trade routes linking the Near East and Western Europe may have been responsible for introducing the primates of Africa and Asia to European artists. They then went on to paint fettered monkeys to represent humans being held captive by earthly pleasures or primates holding an apple to signify man’s temptation. For example, Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s ‘Two Monkeys’ depicts two chained red colobus monkeys in an arched window of what appears to be a prison overlooking Antwerp. It has been interpreted that the monkeys are representative of two sins – greed and squandering, and their imprisonment has come about due to their ‘immoderate attitude towards material wealth’ (Sullivan 1981; Fig. 4).
In certain grandiose scenes, monkeys were included to denote wealthy men who could afford such exotic pets. Monkeys were also linked to reproduction of artwork – a skill which is considered imitative. To give an example, let me get back to the painting I described at the beginning of this post, ‘Le Singe Peintre’ (The Monkey Painter) by Alexandre-Gabriel Decamps (Fig.5). In this work, Decamps represented a monkey as a painter to signify a parody of the vanity of the world of fine arts. In yet another satirical work dated 1837, ‘The Experts’, Decamps painted elegantly dressed monkeys as ‘experts’ critiquing a landscape drawn along the lines of Poussin, a 17th Century painter (Fig. 6). In doing so, Decamps attempted to refute the view that art of the past should dictate contemporary styles.
Humans and primates have co-existed across various cultures and contexts. Primates have been used by humans as food, sources of entertainment, pets, and for trade, biomedical research and other scientific experiments. Singerie adds to this list: primates can be used to represent humans, human traits, and most importantly, human thoughts. So, the next time you see a monkey in Amsterdam, Melbourne or Chicago, do not be shocked, to begin with. And then take some time to figure out for yourself what human characteristic or emotion the monkey may be reflective of!
Sullivan MA. 1981. Peter Bruegel the Elder’s Two Monkeys: A New Interpretation. The Art Bulletin 63: 114-126.
Pfisterer U. 2011. Animal art/human art. Imagined borderlines in the Renaissance. https://epub.ub.uni-muenchen.de/26475/1/oa_26475.pdf.
About the author
Asmita Sengupta is a DST-INSPIRE Faculty Fellow at ATREE. She is interested in human-wildlife interactions, plant-animal interactions and primate behavioural ecology. This piece was inspired by many chats over coffee with her spouse, Tanumay Datta, who is a fellow art and travel enthusiast.