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Livestock Rendered: Animal Painting, Meatpacking and the Founding Collection of the Frye Art Museum

Kathleen Chapman


This paper explores contradictions surrounding animal paintings in the Founding Collection of Seattle’s Frye Art Museum. The collection, assembled by Charles and Emma Frye, who settled in Seattle in the late 1800s, features nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century paintings by European artists, and includes numerous images of farm animals in agrarian settings in which any evidence of modern agricultural advances is absent and idyllic depictions of close, peaceful bonds between humans and domesticated animals predominate. Such calm, anachronistic scenes contrast starkly with the source of wealth that funded the Fryes’ acquisitions—meatpacking. While such imagery can be understood as concealing or deflecting attention from the bloody realities that funded the collection, it may also be regarded as offering hints of what less-exploitative relationships with animals can be. By focusing on painted renderings of domesticated animals’ labor and communicative capacities, I argue these seemingly innocuous, nostalgic images contain potential to move viewers to rethink today’s instrumentalized relationships with animals.

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  • 1 I first became aware of Marais’s painting when I visited Seattle’s Frye Art Museum to view its sign (...)

1In the French artist Adolphe Marais’s 1890 painting Peasant Girl with Cattle (see fig. 1), the “peasant girl” of the title is identifiable through details such as her wooden shoes and her simple, unornamented garments, which include an apron carefully tied up to form useful pockets for carrying knitting supplies.1 The girl is working—she knits as she walks, accompanied by two cows she is presumably minding, one on either side of her. Her eyes are focused on her knitting, while the cows are far more attentive to their surroundings—one samples the foliage they traverse, grazing as she walks; the other looks steadily outward, seemingly concentrating on the progress they all are making and the direction they are heading. Marais has added no evidence that the girl has commanded the cows to walk with her or to proceed in a particular way at any specific pace. We do not see any type of negotiation underway as these very different beings walk together. However, all three proceed easily, each absorbed in her respective activities, each apparently comfortable with the others, and each in agreement with the others regarding their pace and the direction they are heading. This benign scene is carefully composed, communicating stability and calm in its horizontal orientation, the lines created by the cows’ backs rhyming visually with the flatness of the terrain.

2Figure 1. Adolphe Charles Marais (French, 1856–1940), Peasant Girl with Cattle, 1890; oil on canvas; 106.05 x 135.26 cm
Credit: Frye Art Museum, Founding Collection, Gift of Charles and Emma Frye, 1952.110
Photo: Jueqian Fang

  • 2 Of course, not all artists chose to idealize nineteenth-century rural life. As Ellen Spickernagel a (...)

3At first glance, the painting appears to be a fairly mundane example of a genre picture painted in a conservative naturalistic style in an era of proliferating modernist experiments. It offers viewers an idealized depiction of rural life untouched by the forces of industrialization—a way of life that, for decades, had been steadily vanishing. The effects of modernization were perhaps most readily visible in urban settings in nineteenth-century Europe; however, they also manifested themselves in rural regions, where mechanization, railroad networks, and scientific breeding and propagation techniques enabled increased production of grain, meat, milk, wool, and various animal byproducts, commodities that answered growing demand both domestically and internationally. As these changes transformed agriculture and the lives and labor of the humans and animals involved in it, relationships between humans and farmed animals became increasingly instrumentalized and distant. Despite—or due to—these transformations, in art and literature, rural life was often idealized as simple, calm, unchanging, and unalienated, as, for example, in Marais’s painting.2 But the scene he presents offers more than an opportunity to indulge in a moment of nostalgia, as it reveals something worth serious attention: it presents a vision of, perhaps even a desire for, close bonds, mutual trust, and clear communication between humans and animals, relationships that had become increasingly difficult to cultivate in late nineteenth-century France, particularly in modern urban environments.

1. Livestock as Meat and Art

  • 3 While the Fryes acquired a substantial number of portrayals of animals, works that focused solely o (...)

4Such connections between humans and animals were also becoming more challenging to find in urbanized parts of the United States, where Marais’s painting became part of the private art collection of Charles and Emma Frye, wealthy residents of Seattle, Washington. The Fryes had arrived in Seattle in the late 1880s, and Charles’ business ventures had flourished as the city grew in population and in importance for the Pacific Northwest. Soon, they were among the wealthy elites of the growing city, and they had sufficient disposable income to begin collecting art. Starting in 1893, they began to assemble a collection that consisted primarily of late nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century paintings by European artists, which they housed in a gallery built into their home and which they shared with Seattle residents when they periodically opened the gallery to the public for musical performances and art-viewing events. Marais’s Peasant Girl with Cattle is one of several paintings in the Fryes’ collection that feature domesticated farm animals, and a notable number of them depict the type of closeness and unspoken understandings between humans and animals of the kind that Marais portrayed.3 The presence of these works in the Fryes’ collection of paintings is striking not because of their animal subjects. After all, paintings, prints, and sculptures of animals were widely popular in Europe and the U.S. during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. What is striking is the source of funds that allowed the Fryes to add such imagery to their art collection—meatpacking. Profits from the large-scale slaughter of cattle, hogs, and sheep, and the transformation of those animals into meat and other saleable byproducts provided the funds that enabled the Fryes to assemble their substantial collection, which included a good number of idealized representations of human-animal relationships.

  • 4 It is not clear if Frye was among the many tourists who visited the Chicago stockyards or if he was (...)

5Both Charles Frye and his wife Emma were from farming families. Each of them was born in the rural Midwest, and both were children of German immigrants. They married and then moved westward during the 1880s, arriving in Seattle in 1888. Drawing on prior experience in the cattle industry, Charles Frye, along with his early business partner Charles Bruhn, established the Frye-Bruhn Meat Packing Company in 1891 and opened several meat markets in the city. They expanded their business into Alaska, taking advantage of the Klondike gold rush by setting up cattle-raising farms on several Alaskan islands and opening markets in the growing towns there. The Seattle-based slaughterhouse and meatpacking plant, however, remained central to the business. Frye had studied modern slaughterhouse techniques during visits to Chicago and Cincinnati, and his business was soon killing and processing cattle, pigs, and sheep on an industrial scale.4

  • 5 The headline of a 1930 article that appeared in the Seattle Star seems to acknowledge dimensions of (...)
  • 6 Animals used for transportation, especially horses, however, continued to have a significant presen (...)
  • 7 The Fryes’ art collection, known today as the Founding Collection, became the foundation of the Fry (...)

6As the number of animals who were efficiently slaughtered and processed increased, and as the resulting profits that Frye made from his meatpacking business rose, so did the Fryes’ ability to add more paintings to their collection, including those that depicted peaceful, rather than fatal, human-animal relationships. The jarring contrast between the benevolent content presented in the animal paintings that the Fryes acquired and the realities of the industry that generated the profits they used to invest in art highlights a constellation of further contradictions that continue to define humans’ relationships with animals raised for food.5 The paintings of domesticated animals that the Fryes added to their collection were created in Europe at a point when advancing industrialization and the globalization of food production were steadily reducing opportunities for meaningful contact between animals and humans, especially in cities, as consumer demand for meat and other animal byproducts was increasing.6 In this context, the functions of the Fryes’ paintings featuring the type of benign human-animal relationships depicted in Marais’s painting are also antithetical. On the one hand, such imagery can be understood as having worked to deflect attention away from or to conceal the bloody realities that facilitated the creation of the collection, and on the other, the idyllic content can be regarded as having offered visions of what less-exploitative relationships with animals could be. As such, the presence of such images in the Fryes’ “Founding Collection” provides an opportunity to reflect upon the fundamental contradictions that continue to structure the twenty-first century’s instrumentalized relationships with domesticated animals who have been bred and raised solely for the commodities their bodies can produce for human use.7 More broadly, these same contradictions reveal the foundational paradoxes inherent in our conceptions of civilization, nature, culture, progress, refinement, and work. More narrowly, they highlight the potential of images to unsettle long-held beliefs and perhaps even to suggest alternatives to them—in the case of the Fryes’ animal paintings, such images challenge humans’ understandings of animals and the roles they play in “human” society.

2. “Civilizing” Seattle

7In the Seattle of the late nineteenth century, meatpacking was a central industry and source of steady employment for many residents. In fact, it was one of the largest meat processing sites on the West Coast, rivaled only by San Francisco. The industry’s expansion marked a significant shift in what Seattle residents ate. The Indigenous Duwamish people, who were rapidly being displaced by settlers arriving primarily from various parts of the U.S. and Europe, had long thrived on regional fish, shellfish, and other animals, a diet that had also been initially adopted by the early settlers who began to arrive in the mid-nineteenth century. Subsequent newcomers were accompanied by greater numbers of farm animals than the earlier settlers had brought, and the influx of these new species—chickens, ducks, cattle, pigs, and sheep—contributed to dramatic changes in what residents of the burgeoning city ate and how they procured their food. The importation of significant numbers of these animals also affected how the land was divided up, zoned, and used, leading to substantial transformations in local ecosystems (Brown 208).

8The Frye meatpacking plant was located in the tidal flats section of the city, and it shared this area not only with other slaughterhouses and meat processing operations, but also with “fish canneries, ironworks, creosote factories, lumber mills, flour mills, and box factories;” the waste products generated by these industries polluted the coastline, and over time, engineering projects filled in and stabilized the tidelands, resulting in the rapid destruction of traditional regional food sources and their replacement with domesticated animals’ meat, eggs, and dairy products (Brown 208). Frederick Brown notes the resulting impacts on the city, including its topography, and on the Indigenous cultures of the region:

Seattle’s integration into the national economy brought a change in diet and a related change in land use.... Eventually, all the rich tidelands near downtown would be filled in, depriving Duwamish and other city dwellers of a source of sustenance.... The slaughterhouses were more than ready to fill the need for meat created in part by the termination of subsistence practices. The very visible practices of hunting, fishing, and clamming—practiced by Duwamish people and most newcomers in the mid-nineteenth century—gave way to an equally utilitarian practice of slaughterhouse work that only a few practiced in a circumscribed district. (208)

  • 8 For an account of Seattle’s early years as a developing city, see Murray Morgan’s Skid Road: An Inf (...)

9The settlers’ preferred food sources and modes of food production had led to the radical reshaping of the landscape and cultures of the region, and, in the process, had hastened the eradication of traditional ways of living that had sustained the Indigenous Duwamish people for centuries. These dietary and ecological changes also helped to accelerate Seattle’s transformation from a “frontier” town to a modern city with numerous industries that offered relatively well-paid jobs and a growing middle class.8

10Having become the forty-second state in the U.S. in 1889, Washington, along with Seattle, became more tightly incorporated into the broader national economy, and the city’s dietary choices and agricultural production came to reflect larger national trends. With Seattle’s increase in prosperity came a desire to keep the less savory aspects of the city as far away as possible from residential areas, especially wealthy neighborhoods. Among the unwelcome elements, of course, were the slaughterhouses and meat processing plants. Unlike the second half of the twentieth century, when slaughterhouses and meatpacking plants began to move away from large urban centers, and unlike the current twenty-first-century moment, when such facilities are invisible to most, the late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century residents of Seattle were well aware of these operations. Given the importance of this industry for the city’s economy and the significant number of both national and local meat processing companies located there, many residents, particularly those in working-class neighborhoods, likely knew someone who worked in meatpacking. People were long accustomed to seeing animal carcasses displayed in butcher shops, but as the meatpacking industry flourished, they also were subjected to the persistent and revolting smells of large amounts of animal waste and rotting flesh that wafted beyond the meatpacking plants and into residential areas. And as the city and the demand for meat continued to grow, and as meatpacking operations’ owners and financiers sought to meet that rising demand while optimizing profits, the growing numbers of animals destined for slaughter faced increasingly grim conditions (Fitzgerald 61).

  • 9 There were organized efforts to promote animal welfare in Seattle, but advocates for animal wellbei (...)

11A city ordinance passed in 1895 mandated that cattle were no longer permitted to be raised within city limits, so they were raised on farms and ranches elsewhere, and then transported by railroad into the city, where they were then slaughtered. The transfer to Seattle caused these animals considerable stress. Having been raised to graze outside and in relative freedom, the cattle had had little close contact with humans, and they became disoriented and anxious upon their sudden confinement in railcars and subsequent release into stockyards, where after a few months of being penned, deprived of the ability to move about freely, and provided with feed that would fatten them quickly, they were forced by means of shouts and prodding into the chute that led to the killing floor. While there were health officials to ensure that the meat processing plants produced products that were safe for humans to eat, there was little regard for the wellbeing of the animals to be killed (Brown 203-205).9

12Brown identifies a contradiction in this situation in which food animals were only permitted to be part of urban residents’ daily lives as meat, but not as living beings:

The paradox of urban dwellers’ relationship with cattle, pigs, and chickens in the twentieth century is that while animals kept as livestock became less and less visible during the course of the century, people consumed their flesh more and more. Merchants hid animals’ bodies, not because consumers objected to knowing the animal origins of their food, but because the most convenient, profitable forms of commerce involved hiding. These forms of commerce diminished the well-being of cattle, pigs, and chickens. They also shaped what it meant to be a city dweller. Livestock-free lawns and backyards became associated with middle-class neighborhoods. (Brown 200)

  • 10 Donna Haraway reminds us that the dominant type of relationship between humans and animals is the a (...)

13By banning within city limits the raising of large numbers of living animals whose presence was desirable only immediately before and after they had been transformed into cuts of meat, local officials conveyed an implicit message that assured residents that Seattle was no longer a frontier outpost still catching up with more established cities on the East Coast and that it was, in fact a modern city, a bastion of progress and “civilization.” The limits on which types of animals were permitted to be raised within city limits and in what quantities helped to clarify the differences between the urban and the rural, between the working class and the middle and upper classes, between progress and stasis, between the future and the past. By declaring beef cattle, for instance, to be unworthy of city life, officials also deemed them to be easily exploitable and certainly killable.10 The killing and processing could only take place within a clearly demarcated section of the city, thereby ensuring that middle-class sensibilities were not offended by the sights and sounds of the brutal operations that produced their food. The result was that, as the twentieth century progressed, the realities of meat production were sequestered from “polite” society, despite the importance of the industry for Seattle’s economy and despite the fact that it had helped to make the fortunes of some of the city’s wealthiest citizens, including the Fryes.

14Indeed, as Timothy Pachirat argues in his ethnographic study of industrialized slaughter in the US, the very notion of “civilization” relies on hiding ideas and practices that are considered reprehensible, including the mistreatment and mass slaughter of animals to feed humans:

‘Civilization,’ which commonly presents itself to those living in contemporary industrialized societies and urban areas as a ready-made product suitable for inculcation in children and ‘barbarians,’ is in fact a long historical process still in the making, the political implications of which have yet to be fully understood. Key to an understanding of these implications is an exploration of what it means that a central characteristic of what are referred to as development and progress relies on the distancing and concealment of morally and physically repugnant practices rather than their elimination or transformation. (10-11)

15By positing civilization not as something that has been achieved but as a process that is ongoing, Pachirat draws attention to the hidden yet continuing presence of violent and disgusting behaviors at the heart of supposedly civilized societies—behaviors that children and “barbarians” must be trained by the “civilized” to avoid, or perhaps more accurately, to simply ignore.

16Pachirat draws on Norbert Elias’s classic study The Civilizing Process (Über den Prozess der Zivilisation, 1939) to highlight the fundamental contradiction in the concept of “civilization,” which is founded on the sequestration and expansion of what is deemed “repugnant”: instituted and enforced by state authority, this separation reveals that the supposedly civilized reaction of pity or horror at what is deemed to be offensive depends on violence:

violence is increasingly monopolized by the state and sanitized from the sphere of everyday life, we have redefined ‘the repugnant,’ expanding its frontiers and refining our response to it. In Elias’s account, it is the increasing segregation and concealment of violence from the sphere of everyday life that leads to this expansion, a refinement and intensification of what Rousseau terms the sentiment of pity or commiseration..., what Hannah Arendt references as ‘the animal pity by which all normal men are afflicted in the presence of physical suffering,’... and what Lev [sic] Tolstoy evokes in passages like the following: ‘When a man sees an animal dying, a horror comes over him. What he is himself—his essence, visibly before his eyes, perishes—ceases to exist.’ (249)

17By ceding the exercise of violence to the state, members of civilized societies can present themselves as having advanced beyond savagery and can reassure themselves of their progress beyond base instincts by expanding the number of phenomena that they can experience as provoking pity or, more unpleasantly, horror. As the range of what might be experienced as horrible or pitiable grows, so does what must be hidden from “polite” society. Rather than confronting and changing the violent realities that would provoke such reactions, “advanced” societies choose to avoid feelings of repugnance by agreeing to the concealment or isolation of that which might offend. Injustices and violence, including industrial-scale slaughter of living beings, can then continue unabated.

  • 11 While contemplating the issue of which living beings humans have designated as killable, Vinciane D (...)

18In the case of late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Seattle, city laws ensured that “[l]ivestock-free lawns and backyards” would signify “middle-class neighborhoods,” as Brown argues, while the horrific, large-scale work of confining, mistreating, and slaughtering animals could occur in a carefully zoned, regulated, and supervised section of the city that was meant to be placed sufficiently distant from “civilized” neighborhoods and business districts to become, in effect, invisible. The absence of living reminders of the sources of their meat enabled residents to more easily ignore the unpleasant realities of the processes of transforming living animals into edible flesh. The invisibility of the killing and processing of living food animals was reinforced by marketing and display techniques that heightened the visibility of meat as a man-made product. As the twentieth century advanced, the ubiquity of butcher shop displays of identifiable animal carcasses waned, while meat markets and, later, modern supermarkets offered neatly arranged, increasingly tightly packaged cuts of meat that were presented without the contextualizing link to the gutted carcasses of their source animals.11

  • 12 Frye seems to have been committed to profitability over other concerns—he had a long history of res (...)
  • 13 In his conception of cultural capital, Pierre Bourdieu understands it as taking three forms: “Cultu (...)

19However, Seattle’s local zoning ordinances and the rise of new marketing approaches were not able to completely conceal the unpleasant aspects of the meatpacking, and not all neighborhoods were equally shielded from the offensive realities of the industry. In the early years of the twentieth century, the working-class residents who lived in neighborhoods closest to the meat processing business complained repeatedly to the city about uncontrolled, vile smells from the slaughterhouses and meatpacking plants, but their demands for solutions to the problem were thwarted by the wealthy owners of those businesses (Brown 204). Charles Frye, of course, owned a slaughterhouse and meatpacking plant, and he may have been one of the businessmen who worked against costly control measures to stop the foul smells that emanated from his facilities.12 Yet he seems to have trusted his plant to be sufficiently “civilized” for its on-site offices to host selected paintings from his art collection. Frye’s display of works from his private art collection in his company’s offices thus functioned as a declaration of both his economic worth and his cultural capital.13

20Figure 2. Frye Collection displayed in Frye & Company offices, 2203 Airport Way, Seattle, 1942

  • 14 Indeed, Charles Frye was recognized in the local newspaper as one of the significant civic-minded m (...)
  • 15 In an overview of the context in which the Fryes assembled their art collection, Jo-Ann Birnie Danz (...)
  • 16 While anti-German sentiment grew in the U.S. in the wake of Germany’s belligerent initiation of Wor (...)

21The Fryes’ support for the arts was well known in Seattle,14 and the artists represented in their painting collection signaled a particular type of cultural statement. Perhaps due to their German heritage, the Fryes joined other prominent German-Americans and German immigrants in promoting German art and culture to U.S. audiences.15 With very few exceptions, the Fryes ignored American artists. They focused on Northern European artists, and more specifically, they favored the work of modern German artists associated with the Munich Artists’ Society and the Munich Secession, including Ludwig Dill, Franz von Lenbach, Franz von Stuck, Fritz von Uhde, and Heinrich von Zügel. Most of the artists in the collection were not animal painters, and most of the Fryes’ paintings depict humans without animals. Perhaps due to their German heritage, the Fryes joined other prominent German-Americans and German immigrants in promoting German art and culture to U.S. audiences. Thus, by displaying works from the collection at his plant, Charles Frye was able to present himself as an American success story— a first-generation U.S. citizen who combined the economic savvy of a modern businessman with established, refined cultural knowledge from the “old country.”16

  • 17 As displayed, the paintings are as follows: (upper row, left to right) William-Adolphe Bouguereau, (...)
  • 18 Ultimately, the offices of the Frye meatpacking plant proved to be an unsafe place to display paint (...)

22An undated photograph provides a view of how the paintings were installed at the processing plant’s offices: in a room that seems to serve as both storage space and workspace, several large oil paintings are densely hung in as close an approximation of “salon style” as an office/storage room with several large windows and walls lined with boxes can support—closely arranged next to each other and seemingly without attention to thematic coherence or emphasis on any specific artist’s work.17 Based on what is visible in the section of the room that the photo captures, one of the paintings features an animal-related subject, Charles Edward Johnson’s Dipping Sheep (1890). A man in an impeccably white work coat, presumably an employee, is seated at a table, writing, with his back to the paintings, thereby demonstrating that, while he is surrounded by art, he is, nevertheless, working, thus reinforcing the truism that fine art is inherently distinct from commerce and labor. Yet, at the same time, by documenting that the paintings are installed at the site where the labor that enabled Frye to purchase his collection was performed, the photograph draws attention to—without actually showing—the quite literally visceral connection to the means by which Frye accumulated both his economic capital and his cultural capital, both of which were proudly on display.18

23It is only logical then that the photographed man is shown to be engaging in the more “refined” white collar task of writing rather than performing one of the many “repugnant” tasks that were involved in the actual production of meat. And because he is working, he necessarily must be shown to be concentrating on whatever his task at hand might be, despite the potentially edifying presence of the paintings that he could be contemplating instead. The photograph thus discloses yet another “vulgar” or “repugnant” fact that is often denied by or hidden in a civilized society: the inextricably tight connection between capital—and the anonymous workers’ labor that generates it—and art, a link that is obfuscated by an aura of aesthetic idealization that invites disinterested contemplation.

3. Rendering Labor

  • 19 Shukin’s analysis of animal capital is wide-ranging and nuanced, and my reference to her work here (...)

24There is also a similarly visceral—and simultaneously idealized—connection between the animal subjects of many of the paintings in the Fryes’ art collection and the dead animals that enabled its acquisition. This connection exposes the link between the consumption of animals and the consumption of art. In fact, the fraught presence of idyllic images of cows, sheep, and other domesticated animals in an art collection funded by the killing and selling of animals as meat and various byproducts may best be communicated in two of the several valences of “rendering” and “to render.” Nicole Shukin teases out the complexities of these two meanings to show the material and ideological centrality of animals in sustaining the operations of capitalism: “Rendering signifies both the mimetic act of making a copy, that is, reproducing or interpreting an object in linguistic, painterly, musical, filmic, or other media... and the industrial boiling down and recycling of animal remains” (20). For Shukin, considering this double sense of the term “rendering” enables us to acknowledge and historicize the cultural and economic significance of animals both as images and as once-living, embodied beings transformed into a wide range of consumer goods; considering animals in this way forces us to recognize their centrality in what are all too often understood to be exclusively human domains—economies and cultures. As products circulating within the parameters of a capitalist economy, artistic renderings of animals and the various byproducts rendered from once-living creatures for human consumption share the status of commodities. Thus, the value of a painting of a sheep or a pig as an aesthetic object is not determined by the accuracy of the painted depiction of its animal subject nor by the emotional appeal it may have for viewers, let alone by the animal who serves as the artist’s model, but by a fluctuating art market. The value of the bodies of sheep, hogs, cattle, and fowl that are processed into meat, hides, gelatin, and other byproducts is likewise calculated not on the basis of the animals’ former status as individual, embodied, living beings, but on the basis of consumer demand for what is made from them following their deaths.19

  • 20 In Art, Ethics and the Human-Animal the Relationship, Linda Johnson focuses on the unrecognized and (...)

25Given that animals and their “renderings” have played a central role in creating our “civilized” world of advanced capitalism, it is logical to think of animals as workers whose anonymous labor has helped us build our supposedly exclusively human societies.20 For example, animals’ labor can be understood as having helped to create the Fryes’ capital, both economic and cultural. As evident both in the presence of animal paintings in the Fryes’ art collection and in the source of capital that enabled its assembly and display, the labor of domesticated animals, rendered both as image and as commodity, remains trapped within the constellation of the simultaneously contradictory and complementary forces of art, capital, labor, and the management of both material and represented animals’ bodies.

  • 21 Of course, such thinking has not been consistent historically. Stephan Eisenman’s Cry of Nature pro (...)

26There has been a significant growth of interest in the issue of domesticated animals’ labor in recent animal studies scholarship, as Dinesh J. Wadiwel has documented (183). This is a major shift since, historically in Western thought, animals have been understood most often as little more than objects: for example, the author of a late-twentieth-century livestock textbook confidently declares that the “primary purpose of cattle is to convert roughage to meat, milk, and byproducts” (Briggs & Briggs, cited in Quinn, 146).21 According to this model, the work of a cow is to eat, digest, and assimilate nutrition solely for the purpose of producing sellable products; in this scenario, everything a cow does as it lives and breathes is part of its working day and constitutes its labor. The beef cow, therefore, has no “time off”—it works without interruption until it has converted sufficient amounts of feed into flesh, at which point it is slaughtered and its body is transformed into meat and other profitable byproducts. However, as Wadiwel and others have demonstrated, there are other ways of conceptualizing the working lives of domesticated animals.

27Wadiwel celebrates the recent attempts to rethink animal labor primarily because it “situate[es] centrally the ‘agency’ of animals in productive processes.... [A] labour [sic] approach offers the opportunity to understand the specific roles of animals as active forces within various productive circuits, and as forms of value creation” (183-84). Nevertheless, despite such efforts to focus on animals as workers and to theorize new political strategies that might help to create less brutal living and working conditions (and to foster better lives for animals who are bred and raised to become meat), these animals remain subject to the routines and requirements of an endless workday. Animals, therefore, have remained excluded from most attempts to resolve what Marx referred to as the “protracted civil war, more or less dissembled, between the capitalist class and the working-class” over “the establishment of a normal working-day” (Marx 412). And yet, while Wadiwel does not deny the exploitative, coerced, too-often fatal participation in capitalist production processes that animals endure, his emphasis on animals’ agency and their roles as active forces within the broader economy enables him to avoid the long-standing, instrumentalizing conception of animals as nothing but blank, passive material caught up in capitalist exploitation. Instead, by positing animals as “active forces,” even as they are constrained by undeniably abusive circumstances that trap them within production processes, both Wadiwel’s research and the related studies he cites might enable us to envision different, less harmful working conditions and better lives for animals.

4. Rendering Interspecies Relationships

28To discover glimpses of better working conditions for farmed animals, it can be helpful to turn to artists’ renderings of animals to find hints of how to imagine less brutal working conditions for animals raised to be rendered into meat, hides, glue, and other byproducts. While, given the scale of such animals’ suffering, it may seem to be impractical to turn to art, particularly art from the past, for guidance on how to proceed in the present, it is important to acknowledge the effectiveness of visual material to affect viewers emotionally and intellectually. As J. Keri Cronin asserts, “There is... a long history of art being used in [an] educational role when it comes to the treatment of nonhuman animals,” reminding us that, during the second half of the nineteenth century, “[r]eformers working on behalf of animals... placed significance on art and other visual material, and in the animal advocacy literature we find frequent references to the importance of the arts in cultivating ‘kind’ and ‘humane’ behavior. The arts were seen as an essential part of educational campaigns aimed at making the world a kinder, gentler place for all species” (30). Cronin also links the reformers’ use of visual art as a means of appealing to viewers’ empathy for other beings, including animals, to nineteenth-century perceptions of the civilizing power of museums and the viewing of art (38). The strategy behind the appeal to empathy was, of course, to inspire viewers to agitate for stopping current and preventing future acts of cruelty to animals.

29Such perceptions of the elevating effects of art also form the background against which Charles Frye, as a wealthy art collector who shared his art collection with the public, was deemed to be one of Seattle’s most outstanding civic-minded citizens. And while his wealth and advocacy for the arts may have elevated his social standing in Seattle, Frye’s civic-mindedness did not include support for workers’ rights to fair pay and working hours. He was publicly anti-labor, and he worked to thwart the efforts undertaken by those of his employees most closely involved in the slaughter and processing of animals to organize for better pay and working conditions. Given his opposition to organized labor, it is unlikely that he would have understood the animals killed and processed at his plant as workers entitled to specific rights or that he would have been moved by his animal paintings to improve conditions for the livestock that died and were transformed into meat at his plant. Yet, among the paintings in the collection that he and his wife assembled are depictions of what peaceful, mutually beneficial relationships between humans and domesticated animals might be—visions that could perhaps have appealed to animal advocates during Frye’s lifetime and later.

  • 22 How the Fryes felt about the subject matter of such paintings in their collection is not clear. The (...)

30Like Marais’s portrayal of the peasant girl and her two bovine companions, these paintings present farm animals in seemingly pre-industrial contexts, far removed from the modern slaughterhouse and technologies of meat-processing. And as in Marais’s painting, these artworks present tableaux of close companionship and clear communication between species. While on one level, such depictions might appear to a twenty-first-century viewer to be deeply anachronistic and therefore utterly unrelated to concerns of the present, on another, they also hint at—and perhaps even inspire in viewers who see them—a desire for deeper, less exploitative connections with animals.22 Any resulting recognition of the desirability of such relationships might even spur efforts to create conditions in which animals, as active agents, can flourish and in which they will not be forced to “work” themselves to death.

31For example, in Old Man Asleep with Sheep (ca. 1870s), the German artist Heinrich von Zügel presents a sheep, seemingly acting as a representative of a flock, who demonstrates the ability to communicate with a shepherd and a dog who are meant to be tending them. The shepherd slumbers outside in a chair that leans against a rough wall while the dog prepares to lie in the patchy grass next to him. The sheep have gathered in front of them, and one, slightly larger than the others, seems to be bleating at the man, seeking his attention. The scene is one of trust and connection: the man can sleep deeply because he knows the sheep will not stray, and the dog will attend to them if they do; the dog prepares to rest because he can rely on the sheep not to wander, and the closeness of the sheep to one another indicates that they feel safe and not under any immediate threat that would necessitate flight. Further, the bleating sheep appears to expect that the man will respond to these efforts to get his attention. Zügel, the son of a sheep farmer, was familiar with rural life, and this background informs the interactions depicted in the scene. He had spent his childhood helping to herd and tend his father’s flocks, so he understood the behaviors of sheep, dogs used for herding, and other barnyard creatures—and, presumably, the mutually beneficial communications and relationships that could exist among them.

32Figure 3. Heinrich von Zügel (German, 1850–1941), Old Man Asleep with Sheep, 1870s; oil on canvas; 54.61 x 71.76 cm
Credit: Frye Art Museum, Founding Collection, Gift of Charles and Emma Frye, 1952.209
Photo Credit: Jueqian Fang

33The scene Zügel depicts is sentimentalized, even somewhat humorous since, perhaps unexpectedly for many viewers, the sheep seems to be demanding attention from the shepherd rather than passively waiting in a stereotypically “sheep-like” fashion to be directed where to go or what to do by the man, the dog, or even both. Having composed a vignette that, on one level, could perhaps merely appeal to a sense of nostalgia for a simple rural way of life, on a deeper level, Zügel, like Marais, paints a scene of close bonds, mutual trust, and an expectation of cooperation between humans and animals. The sheep’s efforts to gain the shepherd’s attention seem to have had little effect in this scene, but the anticipation that the shepherd is likely to respond reveals that the vocal sheep and the rest of the flock are well aware of the usual rhythms of their working day and that they understand how to communicate when they register any disruption that breaks an established pattern. Zügel thus portrays the sheep as active, conscious participants in the “working day” and as agents who, in their consciousness of and desire to maintain an expected routine, actively help to maintain it. Zügel’s painting thus presents a rustic scene that seems far removed from the modern slaughterhouse that financed the Fryes’ acquisition of it and even further removed from contemporary slaughterhouses that kill and process animals on an even greater scale than Frye’s did. Yet despite the possibility that, for some contemporary viewers, this image might do little more than provoke vague feelings of nostalgia for the type of closeness that once could bind sheep, dog, and man in an easy, companionable working routine, it might also lead others to question why the possibility of such interspecies closeness must be so remote and maybe even to wonder how to reestablish such relationships.

34In its portrayal of reciprocal trust among species, Zügel’s scene affirms Kendra Coulter’s conception of the positive aspects of workplaces where humans and animals intersect. While, like Wadiwel, Coulter acknowledges that such workplaces can be “... where the most widespread and extreme examples of violence against animals occur,” she also argues that they can be beneficial sites of significant, meaningful exchanges between humans and animals:

spaces of work are also sites of compassion, devotion, learning, resistance, and possibility. In multispecies relationships, we can see the best in people, how much and how many humans benefit from animals, and examples of how people could act more ethically. By thoughtfully exploring animals and work, and moving beyond our intellectual cages, we gain a deeper and fuller understanding of labor and of the true range of the world’s workers. (1-2)

  • 23 Among those who have found little to celebrate in the domestication of animals is David I. Nibert, (...)

35By arguing that animals’ work demonstrates that they should be included in the “true range of the world’s workers,” Coulter sets up a means of challenging the “Western/colonial intellectual history, particularly the post-Enlightenment” nature-culture binary that has acknowledged only humans as capable of creating and participating in culture (8). And as she and other scholars, for example, Tim Ingold, have argued, this binary has often worked to exclude not only animals, but those humans whom Western colonial societies have deemed to be lesser humans, that is, those dismissed as being closer to nature than those considered to be “civilized” (Ingold 74). Despite the fact that such binary logic has denied the importance of the roles played by animals, particularly domesticated animals, in creating societies and cultures, animals have been central to their creation. As Coulter asserts, “Without question, animals’ work also propelled human societies” (6). And while some scholars have found that the domestication of animals has resulted only in their exploitation, others, including Coulter, argue that, while it is clear that domination of animals has defined much of the history of animals’ domestication, “there are also examples of human-animal relationships characterized by respect, love, and/or reciprocity. The denial of either means a failure to capture the complexities of human-animal relationships” (7).23

36The importance of animals’ contributions to creating advanced societies and the complexities of the relationships between humans and domesticated animals demonstrates the tenuousness of the nature-culture divide. For Coulter, by attending to animal work, the instability of this supposedly stable binary becomes apparent:

  • 24 Coulter positions her work in “the nature-labor nexus,” which for her includes the “intersections b (...)

[T]he lens of animal work illustrates the interconnectedness of nature and culture, and the importance of context. This includes recognizing that structural factors shape and constrain both people and animals, and that both have agency. It means seeing that people and animals interact in spaces and relationships of work, that elements and beings from nature are shaped in mixed species spaces, that animal workers adapt to human demands and needs, and that animals shape multispecies worksites. (11)24

37Here, Coulter emphasizes that, since humans and animals have—and exercise—agency, they both contribute significantly to the shaping of the realms they share, including worksites.

38Coulter’s emphasis on the fact that both humans and animals both have agency and that both humans and animals affect and in fact shape each other and the “multispecies worksites” where they may interact is echoed by other scholars. For example, Joycelyn Porcher focuses on work because it is in the context of the multispecies worksite that the world shared by humans and domesticated animals becomes obvious, direct, and tangible. Porcher also argues that attending to animals’ labor is important because, for many workers, it is often in the process of shared work that animals and humans learn to understand more about each other: “It is thanks to work that some aspects of the cow are known to us, and part of ourselves, as human beings, is known to the cow” (2). She argues that, by focusing on our shared world of work, we can return “to animals and... to ourselves that which capitalism, scientism, and triumphalism have taken from us: knowledge of the broad but potentially profitable, intelligent, and sentimental composition of the ties between us” (2). Like Coulter, Porcher argues that no society is exclusively human, stating that “society is human with and indeed through domestic animals” and, therefore, what “we define as ‘society’ includes de facto human beings and domestic animals” (1). And an important factor that binds humans and animals in their common society is their collaborative work.

5. Rendered Alternatives

  • 25 Of course, Uexküll never believed that humans could effortlessly and fully understand another speci (...)

39The analyses of multispecies worksites undertaken by Porcher and Coulter can be placed on a continuum with other “modern”—in other words, late-nineteenth-, twentieth-, and even twenty-first-century—attempts to theorize the ways that the worlds of humans, plants, and animals intersect with and enrich one another. Their attentiveness to the ways that species communicate and otherwise interact with each other resonates with that of the early-twentieth-century theoretical biologist and so-called founder of biosemiotics, Jakob von Uexküll. Uexküll argued that each animal operates to a great extent in a species-specific Umwelt, or environment, composed primarily of phenomena that it can sense and use to make meaning. In other words, for Uexküll, all animals are capable of semiosis. Further, Uexküll argues that these species-specific environments intersect with and often even merge with the environments of other species. Uexküll’s examples range from the interactions between hermit crabs and abalone to relationships between humans and guide dogs, and even though those realms remain alien to one another, there are nevertheless intersections where signs are mutually made and meanings are exchanged.25 While Uexküll was interested in how such exchanges functioned in wider ecosystems, his analysis is also applicable to the “ecosystem” that is a multispecies worksite.

40The communications between species that Uexküll highlights are, obviously, based on exchanges that do not conform to our standard conceptions of human language. However, as is likely apparent to anyone who has interacted with animals—particularly with horses or with companion animals such as cats and dogs—such forms of communication are both meaningful and observable. Based on many of the paintings in the Fryes’ art collection, painters who focus on animals can be very attuned to such exchanges, and they often include evidence of the wordless yet effective messages that animals send to and receive from humans and each other. And in the animal paintings in the Fryes’ collection, such communication often occurs during a “working day.”

41Other paintings in the collection, in contrast to Zügel’s bleating sheep, focus on forms of unvocalized exchange. As a form of visual art, a painting is well suited to “tell” humans about the ways that such silent modes of communication between humans and animals can take place. For example, in Three Cows and a Calf (ca. 1890), Léon Barillot presents cattle in the foreground; the cattle cast long shadows, indicating that the end of a day of grazing approaches. They stand beside a stream that flows through the field, neatly contained within its banks; a flock of sheep and a shepherd appear in the background, moving along a smooth path. The cattle are a considerable distance from the shepherd and sheep, but they appear acutely aware of them. This scene can be understood as a portrayal of an active working day and the interspecies relationships that bind the cows, sheep, and shepherd as coworkers. Without any apparent coercion from the humans, the cows and sheep adhere willingly to the same schedule as the shepherd. They all expect to be following the same routine, and they all cooperate as they coordinate what must be done to complete their “shift.” In watching the movements of the sheep and shepherd closely, the cows affirm they know that they soon will return to the farmyard to be milked and to rest for the night. The calf in the foreground seems to look outward from the painting and toward viewers, a detail that underscores the importance of this young animal’s desire to exchange looks with humans, as well as with sheep and other cows, perhaps as a request for confirmation that what is expected will indeed happen. Acknowledging one another in this way invites further exchanges with each other and affirms and strengthens the interspecies bonds that facilitate cooperation and a peaceful conclusion of the shared working day.

42Figure 4. Léon Barillot (French, 1844–1929), Three Cows and a Calf, ca. 1890; oil on linen; 132.08 x 163.2 cm
Credit: Frye Art Museum, Founding Collection, Gift of Charles and Emma Frye, 1952.005
Photo Credit: Jueqian Fang

  • 26 In “Why Look at Animals?” John Berger argues that, as the forces of capitalism and advancing indust (...)

43The Fryes owned several additional examples of artists’ portrayals of domesticated animals’ labor situated in the nexus of the close, cooperative connections and creative communications between humans and animals. The significant presence of scenes featuring hunting dogs, horses, ducks, chickens, pigs, cows, goats, and sheep, and the bonds that form and support their meaningful coexistence with humans and each other testifies to the Fryes’ appreciation of such imagery. They were not alone in valuing animal paintings. In fact, during the nineteenth century, animals in European art became increasingly acceptable as subjects of painting as animals, rather than functioning as allegories or symbols of human concerns. Indeed, over the course of the nineteenth century, interest in animal imagery gained in popularity and contributed to the desirability of animal paintings among collectors.26 The timespan when the Fryes were building their collection—from approximately the early 1890s through the 1930s—is a period when increasingly abstract, experimental styles associated with European modernism emerged, but naturalistic figuration remained popular with the viewing public, including collectors. Over the course of the twentieth century, however, the types of animal paintings that artists such as Barillot, Marais, and Zügel produced came to be regarded as uninterestingly conservative, even as kitsch. On the one hand, they adhered to the traditional codes of academic naturalism, and on the other, they used those codes to stage an often exaggeratedly idyllic rural way of life. However, when viewed in light of recent theories of animal labor and analyses of domestication, the works these artists produced can inspire more progressive interpretations that find possibilities for imagining and forging less instrumental, more just relationships with animals.

44The potential to discover ways to rethink our current relationships with domesticated animals in the apparently sentimental, stylistically conservative animal imagery in the Fryes’ Founding Collection reveals a productive paradox among the other contradictions that structure this collection of paintings. The possibility that the Fryes’ animal paintings might inspire such thinking demonstrates the force of images that W.J.T. Mitchell analyzes in his work. He reminds us, “We need to ponder that we don’t just evaluate images; images introduce new forms of value into the world, contesting our criteria, forcing us to change our minds” (92). In other words, we do not simply look at images in order to judge them as being beautiful or not; we also look at images because they can inspire us to reevaluate how we see, how we think about, and how we act upon the world and the countless living beings that populate it. For Mitchell, it is this power of images to goad us to “change our minds” that reveals to us that “images are active players in the game of establishing and changing values. They are capable of introducing new values into the world and thus of threatening old ones” (105).

  • 27 The importance of free public access to the Fryes’ Founding Collection is central to the museum’s m (...)

45Following Mitchell’s analysis, even artworks, which may initially seem, to twenty-first-century eyes, to be overly sweet or too historically remote to offer much to help alleviate the suffering of animals caught up in industrialized meat production, deserve to be taken seriously. Careful looking and serious consideration of the wish for interspecies closeness that underpin (or are understood to underpin) such imagery can inspire the desire—and perhaps the willingness to act—to prevent animals’ suffering. The Frye Art Museum opened to the public in 1952, and in adherence to one of the key stipulations that Frye had outlined, the Fryes’ Founding Collection, which still serves as the core collection of the museum, would be made available at no cost to the public.27 Thus, a museum made possible with the blood, bodies, and labor of innumerable animals provides free access to images that can help us rethink our harmful relationships with animals and encourage us to imagine the demise of the very industry that has provided us the opportunity to imagine alternatives to it.

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Berger, John. “Why Look at Animals?” About Looking, Pantheon Press, 1980, pp. 1-26.

Bourdieu, Pierre. “The Forms of Capital.” Readings in Economic Sociology, edited by Nicole Woolsey Biggart, Blackwell, 2002, pp, 280-291.

Brown, Frederick. This City Is More Than Human. U of Washington P, 2017.

Brentari, Carlo. Jakob von Uexküll: The Discovery of Umwelt between Biosemiotics and Theoretical Biology. Springer, 2015.

Coulter, Kendra. Animals, Work, and the Promise of Interspecies Solidarity. Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.

Cronin, Keri J. Art for Animals: Visual Culture and Animal Advocacy, 1870-1914. Pennsylvania State UP, 2018.

Danzker, Jo-Anne Birnie. “In the Shadow of War.” Beloved: Pictures at an Exhibition, edited by Jo-Anne Birnie Danzker, Frye Art Museum, 2012, pp. 10-30.

Danzker, Jo-Anne Birnie. “The Munich Secession and America: The Collections of Hugo Reisinger, Josef Stránsky, Charles and Emma Frye.” The Munich Secession 1892-1914, edited by Michael Buhrs, Edition Minerva, 2008, pp. 275-86.

Despret, Vinciane. What Would Animals Say If We Asked the Right Questions? U of Minnesota P, 2015.

Fitzgerald, Amy J. “A Social History of the Slaughterhouse: From Inception to Contemporary Implications.” Research in Human Ecology Review vol. 17, no. 1, 2010, pp. 58-69.

“Frye Art Museum—About.” Frye Art Museum, Accessed 29 January 2024

Haraway, Donna J. When Species Meet. U of Minnesota P, 2007.

Ingold, Tim. The Perception of the Environment: Essays on Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill. Routledge, 2000.

Johnson, Linda. Art, Ethics and the Human-Animal Relationship. Springer International Publishing AG, 2021.

Marx, Karl. Capital, vol. 1. Translated by Ben Fowkes. Vintage, 1976.

Mitchell, W.J.T. What Do Pictures Want? The Lives and Loves of Images. U of Chicago P, 2005.

Morgan, Murray. Skid Road: An Informal History of Seattle. U of Washington P, 2018.

Pachirat, Timothy. Every Twelve Seconds: Industrialized Slaughter and the Politics of Sight. Yale UP, 2009.

Porcher, Jocelyne. “The Work of Animals: A Challenge for Social Sciences,” Humanimalia vol. 6, no. 1, 2014, pp. 1-9.

Quinn, Michael S. "Corpulent Cattle and Milk Machines: Nature, Art, and the Ideal Type," Society and Animals vol. 1, no. 2,1993, pp. 145-157.

Shukin, Nicole. Animal Capital: Rendering Life in Biopolitical Times. U of Minnesota P, 2009.

Wadiwel Dinesh J. “The Working Day: Animals, Capitalism, and Surplus Time.” Animal Labour: A New Frontier of Interspecies Justice?, edited by Charlotte Blattner, Kendra Coulter, and Will Kymlicka, Oxford UP, 2020, pp. 181-206.

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1 I first became aware of Marais’s painting when I visited Seattle’s Frye Art Museum to view its significant number of works by some of Germany’s most significant nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century animal painters, particularly Heinrich von Zügel. I learned about the many additional animal painters’ works in the collection, thanks to then-Collections Manager Cory Gooch, who showed me painting after painting of farm animals. Viewing them together was a revelation, and my thinking about these images led to the exhibition I was invited to curate for the museum, Human Nature/Animal Culture: Selections from the Frye Art Museum Collection (June 12, 2021-September 11, 2022).

2 Of course, not all artists chose to idealize nineteenth-century rural life. As Ellen Spickernagel argues, earlier in century, the French painter Jean-Francois Millet, for example, registered the harsh, impoverished conditions endured by peasants as agriculture modernized; however, she demonstrates, Millet also shows that, despite such dire conditions and despite the fact that relationships between farm animals and humans became increasingly instrumentalized as husbandry modernized, close and mutually supportive bonds between humans and the animals with whom they worked could develop and persist (Spickernagel 8-12).

3 While the Fryes acquired a substantial number of portrayals of animals, works that focused solely on humans seem to have made up the majority of their collection.

4 It is not clear if Frye was among the many tourists who visited the Chicago stockyards or if he was there in a more professional capacity. It is also unclear what year he first viewed these famous stockyards that also became infamous following the publication of Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel The Jungle, which exposed the dangerous working conditions, brutal treatment of animals, and production processes that could endanger consumers’ health that prevailed there. But he was certainly in Chicago in 1893, when he visited the World’s Columbian Exposition being held in the city. It was at this exposition that Frye, then 35 years old, encountered oil paintings for the first time, and he seems to have been very stimulated by the experience. He claimed to have spent a week, “every day from 9 until 4 in the galleries” in the exposition’s Palace of Fine Arts, viewing the European paintings displayed there. Three of the paintings that were on display became part of the Fryes’ collection (Danzker 32-33).

5 The headline of a 1930 article that appeared in the Seattle Star seems to acknowledge dimensions of these paradoxes: “He’s a Meat Packer and Art Connoisseur; Charles Frye Presents Odd Contrast in Business and Home Life; Doesn’t Want Men to Smoke, Chew Gum” (cited in Danzker 101, fn 16).

6 Animals used for transportation, especially horses, however, continued to have a significant presence in Seattle during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Much of local animal welfare advocates’ attention focused on the frequently brutal treatment that working horses endured. At the same time, in their quest to establish a market and to prompt construction of roads that were more accommodating to automobiles and trucks, advocates of the new motorized vehicles incorporated animal welfare activists’ concerns for working horses into their arguments, asserting that the widespread use of these vehicles was more humane because using them as substitutes for horses would prevent the animals’ suffering (Brown 104-105). As the twentieth century advanced, most of the close relationships that residents were able to cultivate with domesticated animals were those established with household pets, particularly cats and dogs.

7 The Fryes’ art collection, known today as the Founding Collection, became the foundation of the Frye Art Museum in Seattle. According to the museum’s website, “The museum's Founding Collection of 232 oil paintings reflects the distinctive vision of museum founders Charles and Emma Frye and celebrates late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century European and American art.... Gifted in perpetuity to the people of Seattle, Charles and Emma Frye’s collection became the Founding Collection of the Frye Art Museum, which opened on February 8, 1952. After Charles Frye’s death in 1940, the executor of Frye’s will, Walser Sly Greathouse, administered the establishment of the museum and became its first director” (“Frye Art Museum—About”). While the recent curatorial and acquisitions programs have focused on modern and contemporary art, selections from the Founding Collection are always on display and available for public viewing at no cost.

8 For an account of Seattle’s early years as a developing city, see Murray Morgan’s Skid Road: An Informal History of Seattle, which focuses on a series of influential, often quirky, individuals who either embraced or attempted to eradicate the city’s rough edges and perceived excesses. (The Fryes do not appear in Morgan’s account.)

9 There were organized efforts to promote animal welfare in Seattle, but advocates for animal wellbeing did not seem to have had any impact on the brutalities of meat production.

10 Donna Haraway reminds us that the dominant type of relationship between humans and animals is the act of killing, and she advocates a rejection of the anthropocentric dictum “thou shalt not kill” since it has been applied almost exclusively to humans. Instead, she proposes an alternative: “The problem is not figuring out to whom such a command applies so that ‘other’ killing can go on as usual and reach unprecedented historical proportions. The problem is to learn to live responsibly within the multiplicitous necessity and labor of killing, so as to be in the open, in quest of the capacity to respond in relentless historical, nonteleological, multispecies contingency. Perhaps the commandment should read, ‘Thou shalt not make killable’” (80).

11 While contemplating the issue of which living beings humans have designated as killable, Vinciane Despret notes that “Two billion three hundred eighty-nine million pounds of farm animals died in 2009. They were eaten. If one wanted to evaluate the total weight of dead animals, one would have to add to this number those that were killed due to hunting, car accidents, old age or disease, euthanasia, eating by nonhuman predators, and elimination for sanitation reasons or those that were otherwise culled because they were no longer productive,” and she follows this tally with a provocative question whose answer is difficult to formulate, “How many pounds of humans disappeared over the course of the same year? One does not ask these kinds of questions, or, to be more precise, they are not asked in this manner. If the question of the number of deaths among humans is raised, it will either be calculated according to an average, or be inferred, or be part of a distribution. Under no circumstances will it be measured in pounds or tons but rather by ‘persons’” (Despret 81). Here Despret emphasizes the multiple decisions that “civilized” societies make about which beings are to be included and which are to be excluded; by calculating animals’ deaths in pounds, as pure matter and, literally, dead weight, the civilized justify the killability of domesticated animals raised as food.

12 Frye seems to have been committed to profitability over other concerns—he had a long history of resisting efforts by organized labor to improve working conditions and pay for his employees (Brown 204-205).

13 In his conception of cultural capital, Pierre Bourdieu understands it as taking three forms: “Cultural capital can exist in three forms: in the embodied state, i.e., in the form of long-lasting dispositions of the mind and body; in the objectified state, in the form of cultural goods (pictures, books, dictionaries, instruments, machines, etc.), which are the trace or realization of theories or critiques of these theories, problematics, etc.; and in the institutionalized state, a form of objectification which must be set apart because, as will be seen in the case of educational qualifications, it confers entirely original properties on the cultural capital which it is presumed to guarantee” (Bourdieu 292). The objectified state of Frye’s cultural capital—his collection of European oil paintings—is most relevant here.

14 Indeed, Charles Frye was recognized in the local newspaper as one of the significant civic-minded men of Seattle, and it is likely that the Fryes’ willingness to “share” their collection and their interest in music served as evidence of his civic-mindedness. The fact that the Fryes created opportunities for Seattle residents to enjoy fine art and music in a city that could not yet compete with the stature of well-established cultural centers on the East Coast such as Boston, New York City, and Philadelphia is perhaps a reason that Frye was written about in local newspapers as civic-minded, public-spirited, and a leader of the city.

15 In an overview of the context in which the Fryes assembled their art collection, Jo-Ann Birnie Danzker writes, “The Frye Founding Collection has remained since its inception a celebration of a singular moment... [during the early twentieth century and before the start of World War I] when influential American collectors and museum curators sought to establish close cultural ties between Germany and the United States. Those men and women... pursued their endeavors with extraordinary passion and commitment. It was the Munich Secession that captured their imaginations and with its commitment to internationalism, to the integration of art and everyday life, and to new forms of the modern. Above all, the Secessionists—artists of at times irreconcilable persuasions—astonished their American observers with their celebration of difference and their ‘impulsive, energetic and extremely various art,’ which showed ‘how far individualism may be carried’” (Beloved 30). Among other prominent collectors of German Secessionist art whose efforts to promote German art and culture in the U.S. that Danzker highlights in her work are the Austrian-Czech immigrant conductor and art dealer Josef Stránsky and the German immigrant businessman Hugo Reisinger.

16 While anti-German sentiment grew in the U.S. in the wake of Germany’s belligerent initiation of World War I, the Fryes remained committed to focusing mostly on the work of modern German artists, and they continued adding German paintings to their collection.

17 As displayed, the paintings are as follows: (upper row, left to right) William-Adolphe Bouguereau, In the Woods, 1905, oil on canvas, 61 1/2 x 35 1/2 in.; Friedrich August von Kaulbach, Portrait of the Artist’s Family, ca. 1907, oil on canvas, 63 x49 in.; Nikolai Nikanorovich Dubovskoi, Seascape with Figures, 1899, oil on canvas, 65 1/8 x 56 in.; Charles Edward Johnson, Dipping Sheep 1890, oil on canvas, 40 1/4 x 60 in.; Rudolph Petuel, Cloudy Winter Day, 1913, oil on canvas, 43 5/8 x 49 1/2 in.; Albert Wenk, Untitled [Meersburg, Lake Constance], ca. 1920-1934, oil on canvas, 39 1/2 x 47 3/8 in.; (lower row): Hermann Corrodi, Venice, ca. 1900; oil on canvas; 49 1/4 x 91 1/4 in.

18 Ultimately, the offices of the Frye meatpacking plant proved to be an unsafe place to display paintings. In February of 1943, three years after Charles Frye’s death and nine after Emma Frye died, a prototype of Boeing’s B-29 bomber—the plane that the U.S. used in 1945 to drop nuclear bombs on Japan—crashed into the Frye meatpacking plant, killing a fireman, 20 of the plant’s employees, at least 80 hogs, and the entire flight crew. The resulting fires destroyed the plant, necessitating its rebuilding. An unknown number of the Fryes’ paintings were also burned in the fire, as were most of the records that documented the acquisition histories of individual artworks. It is, therefore, difficult to determine how many paintings made up the collection and which ones vanished in the fire.

19 Shukin’s analysis of animal capital is wide-ranging and nuanced, and my reference to her work here engages with only a small portion of the complexities of her arguments as I think through the implications of the relationships between the Fryes’ art collection, the subject matter of some of paintings in it, and the source of the Fryes’ wealth that enabled them to acquire the works in it.

20 In Art, Ethics and the Human-Animal the Relationship, Linda Johnson focuses on the unrecognized and anonymous work that animals have performed in the production of Western art, from their cooptation as allegories, moral lessons, and signs of power to their material contributions in the form of paint brush hairs and bristles, vellum, dyes, glues, etc.

21 Of course, such thinking has not been consistent historically. Stephan Eisenman’s Cry of Nature provides a useful historical overview of various strands of Western thought about human-animal relations.

22 How the Fryes felt about the subject matter of such paintings in their collection is not clear. They worked with artists who advised them on what to purchase, and they seem to have focused more closely on making purchases of paintings by European artists, particularly prominent Munich-based artists whose work was in high demand, than they focused on subject matter.

23 Among those who have found little to celebrate in the domestication of animals is David I. Nibert, who uses the term “domesecration” to highlight the exploitative domination inherent in domestication that has extended not only to animals but to humans as well. See his Animal Oppression and Human Violence: Domesecration, Capitalism, and Global Conflict. Columbia UP, 2013.

24 Coulter positions her work in “the nature-labor nexus,” which for her includes the “intersections between nature and labor,” and which she deploys in order to trouble “boundaries like ‘wild’ and ‘domesticated,’ and ‘the environment’ versus ‘animals,’” in favor of a more integrated approach (11-12). While I intend my analysis also to trouble distinctions between nature and culture, I focus narrowly on animals deemed “domesticated” and so maintain their distinction from “wild” animals in this discussion.

25 Of course, Uexküll never believed that humans could effortlessly and fully understand another species’ Umwelt. As he wrote in 1910 in his essay, “On the Invisible in Nature,” “We are faced with the following: There is an alien/unfamiliar subject–an animal which we can observe in our own Umwelt. We know that this Umwelt gets its genuine character from ourselves. We can never get to know the character that the alien/unfamiliar subject gives to its own Umwelt. The only task that is feasible for us consists in this: Through observation of and experiment with each part of our own Umwelt [we can] confirm which ones are present also in the alien/unfamiliar Umwelt” (qtd. in Brentari 17).

26 In “Why Look at Animals?” John Berger argues that, as the forces of capitalism and advancing industrialization displaced animals from humans’ everyday lives, animal images became more popular and functioned as the primary means through which people came into contact with animals.

27 The importance of free public access to the Fryes’ Founding Collection is central to the museum’s mission statement even today: “The Frye Art Museum is a living legacy of visionary patronage and civic responsibility, committed to artistic inquiry and a rich visitor experience. A catalyst for our engagement with contemporary art and artists is the Founding Collection of Charles and Emma Frye, access to which shall always be free.” (“Frye Art Museum—About”).

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Electronic reference

Kathleen Chapman, Livestock Rendered: Animal Painting, Meatpacking and the Founding Collection of the Frye Art MuseumEuropean journal of American studies [Online], 19-1 | 2024, Online since 07 February 2024, connection on 19 April 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Kathleen Chapman

Kathleen Chapman is an associate professor in the Department of Art History at Virginia Commonwealth University, specializing in late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-European art, especially German, visual culture. She teaches courses about European modernism and animal studies. Her publications include articles about German Expressionism and the book Expressionism and Poster Design in Germany, 1905-1922: Between Spirit and Commerce (2016); more recently, she has published articles about wildlife art and is working on a larger project focused on German animal art of the early twentieth century.

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