Reading the title of this article, more than one may wonder what madness this is, but seeing the accompanying images will understand it better… unless you run off in search of a psychiatrist.

Jokes aside, since the Modern Age, it became fashionable among painters to create paintings with scenes of everyday life (playing cards, going to the dentist, going to school, reading a book…) featuring monkeys instead of humans. The trend persisted in the following centuries and even has its own name: the French word “singerie”, which means something like “monkey business”.

The monkey was not a new iconographic element for artists. It had been represented since antiquity, both in the Mediterranean world and in Asia, where it is not uncommon to find it associated with Buddhism and Hinduism.

In those early representations, it appeared due to its association with the divine world, especially in the Egyptian context, where the god Baba (or Babi), representing virile strength, took the form of a baboon.

Baba had another distinctive trait, his deceitful and thieving character, something that persisted in Greco-Roman art. Even later, when the advent of Christianity influenced classical culture, that pejorative sense continued – something that would be accentuated in the Middle Ages – albeit with a twist adapted to the new faith: the monkey was identified with a kind of degraded vision of humanity.

In other words, that animal represented a caricature of Man and embodied all his vices: lust, gluttony, foolishness, selfishness… Sin, in a word.

For this reason, it was used as an allegorical element to represent evil and, consequently, Satan and his demons. This is the meaning of seeing it depicted in some religious paintings and engravings, such as Durer’s “The Virgin and Child with a Monkey.”

When the artist visited Flanders in 1521, he bought a monkey brought from the Indies (probably a tamarin) for four florins, which he portrayed in several of his works. It was a time when exotic American animals brought by sailors began to proliferate, also entering art; the same happened with parrots.

In reality, Durer serves as a bridge between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, a new era in which monkeys, as seen, continued to be present in art but leaving behind their religious symbolism, at least partially, to acquire a more sensory meaning and serve to symbolize the five senses.

The Museum of Cluny (Paris) preserves a famous set of six tapestries titled “The Lady and the Unicorn”, one of which is dedicated to the sense of smell and shows a monkey stealing the flower the protagonist is smelling.

In the 16th century, the pictorial monkey underwent a new change: it was no longer a devil or a sense, although it retained a burlesque, comical meaning, becoming an exotic element in paintings reflecting the rich life of the affluent social classes and the royal court.

It took root especially in Flemish art, just as it would with the caricatured tronie portrait, considering Pieter van der Borcht, an artist and printer from Mechelen, as its introducer – as an independent and distinctive theme – through a series of prints published in 1575.

These prints were probably inspired by a painting thirteen years earlier by Pieter Brueghel the Elder. It is titled “Two Monkeys” and shows two animals on a windowsill, chained alongside walnut shells that made them lose their freedom as punishment for their insatiable gluttony.

Van der Borcht’s prints had such wide circulation that they encouraged other artists – especially from Antwerp, where this peculiar iconography took strong root – to join what began to become a thematic trend: his son Brueghel the Younger, Sebastiaen Vrancx, Jan van Kessel the Elder, Frans Francken the Younger…

Also, the brothers David and Abraham Teniers were authors of perhaps the most famous monkey paintings, introducing novelty: those in which the primates appear dressed in human clothing, engaging in typical genre scenes such as playing cards, cooking, attending a party or school, and even painting a picture.

It should be mentioned that the Teniers also did the same with cats, sometimes mixing them in the same painting, as in “Barber Shop with Monkeys and Cats”, where the monkeys are shaving the mustaches of the cats in a metaphor for the political and economic superiority of Flanders over France. Sebastiaen Vrancx did the same, even taking them to the battlefield.

The success of the Teniers expanded the theme beyond Flemish borders into the 17th century. To Spain, for example, where, although El Greco already had some works (such as “The Fable”), Velázquez himself joined the trend with “Three Musicians” (behind the young lute player holding a wine glass, a monkey with a pear in hand is seen, emphasizing the grotesque tone).

Or to France, where Antoine Watteau signed “The Sculptor Monkey” (an animal tries to sculpt a stone bust, considered a critique of artists’ attempts to imitate nature).

Another artist who joined the singerie was Nicolaes van Verendael, who had collaborated with Carstian Luyckx and the aforementioned David Teniers on a still life where the latter painted the architectural part, Luyckx the hunting pieces, and he the floral decoration.

Van Verendael used to create thematic series and had one dedicated to still lifes with flowers, also signing some monkey paintings, such as “The Monkey King’s Feast”, in which he reproduces a baroque-style banquet with these animals.

So came the 18th century, the Enlightenment era, in which the conceptual perspective changed somewhat despite the Enlightenment opening the door to organized academic science, with Linnaeus’s first taxonomy of life and the primitive attempts at an evolutionary explanation by Buffon and Félix de Azara.

The monkey remained a grotesque version of Man, and although it retained a certain moralism in paintings, it did so in a comedic tone.

Apart from the mentioned Watteau, who created “The Sculptor Monkey” in 1710, the singerie of the eighteenth century has as its main representatives the Frenchmen Jean Bérain the Elder (who was responsible for designing royal house parties with an elaborate set of decorations so personal that it earned its own name, Bérainesque, often including monkeys dressed as gentlemen and ladies); André-Charles Boullé, a cabinetmaker and decorator who included monkeys in the decoration of his marquetry; not forgetting Jean-Siméon Chardin.

However, Goya must be mentioned, who in 1799 made an engraving on this theme for his series “Los Caprichos”, number forty-one. It is titled “Neither more nor less”, and two etchings of it are preserved, one in the Prado Museum and the other in the National Library, both illustrating the same scene: a monkey, palette and brush in hand, is painting a donkey on a canvas in what is interpreted as a moralizing intention that perhaps concealed some more significant meaning for the author.

Just as Durer was a bridge between medieval and modern art, Goya was – even though he is actually an unclassifiable painter – a bridge between neoclassical and romantic art typical of the 19th century.

And in that century, the singerie continued to appear in paintings; there are the works of Belgians Charles Verlat or Zacharie and Emmanuel Noterman, the Frenchmen Alexandre-Gabriel Decamps and Charles Monginot, the Englishmen Edwin Henry Landseer and Edmund Bristow, the Germans Paul Friedrich Meyerheim and Gabriel von Max…

And anyone who thinks that in the 20th century, once it was established that Man and monkey shared an ancestor, the theme would be exhausted is very wrong; the baton was picked up by artists like Frida Kahlo, Francis Bacon, Jeff Koons, or Igor Skaletsky, to name just a few.

Moreover, it is also wrong to believe that the singerie was limited to painting, as decorative arts were not oblivious to the trend, as seen in the cases of Bérain and Boullé. Just visit the Royal Site of Aranjuez to see it; in fact, palaces are very suitable places for it.

The Hôtel de Rohan in Paris, now the seat of the National Archives of France, has a room decorated with monkeys by Jean-Baptiste Marie Huet, also the decorator of the Grande Singerie and the Petite Singerie of the Château de Chantilly, now the Condé Museum.

In England, the Monkey Room of the Monkey Island Hotel on the Thames is noteworthy, as are the Chelsea porcelain, which copied the Affenkapelle (“Monkey Orchestra” in German) from Meissen (Saxony).

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on November 29, 2023. Puedes leer la versión en español en Singerie, el género pictórico originado en la Edad Media que representa a monos imitando el comportamiento humano


Ptolemy Tompkins, The monkey in Art | Olimpia Gaia Martinelli, Monkeys in art (en Artmajeur Magazine) | Laura Thipphawong, Singeries: The Genre Paintings of Monkeys as Humans (en Arts Help) | Alexander Lee, A history of monkeys (en History Today) | The Singerie: Monkeys acting as Humans in Art (en The Public Domain Review) | Wikipedia

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