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  • April 7, 2016

If Rembrandt Painted Farm Animals, They’d Look Like This

Author
Becky Harlan

For a lot of us, “chicken” is a piece of white meat that’s better for you than a piece of red meat. Because really, how often do we see a chicken if it’s not on our plates?

But there was a time when we were intimately connected with livestock and fowl, a relationship evident in our most important stories and our popular culture, from Chicken Little to the Biblical parable of the lost sheep to “Old Macdonald Had a Farm.” We come from people who used to be able to tell two sheep apart.

Portrait of a Murray grey cow in dramatic lighting
Murray grey cattle

“In modern times most of us have lost connections with the land and the livestock that sustain us,” says New Zealand photographer Cally Whitham. “Instead of knowing animals individually, we’re mostly just familiar with lamb, beef, chicken, or pork as a product.” Reforming these lost connections is what motivated Whitham to create farm animal portraits that look like Dutch master paintings.

Portrait of a black turkey, with a dramatic blue and red face, in dramatic lighting
Black turkey

It sounds romantic, but there are real consequences to being so divorced from something we still rely on to survive. Our health, the health of animals, and the health of the planet are closely tied to how we farm, and how we farm is in some ways affected by how we view the animals we farm.

Portrait of a Tawny crossbreed ewe looking off to the side in dramatic lighting
Tawny crossbreed ewe

“The philosopher Elaine Scarry has observed that ‘beauty always takes place in the particular,'” says author Jonathan Safran Foer in his aptly named book Eating Animals. “Cruelty, on the other hand, prefers abstraction.”

It’s easy for us to accept factory farming in the abstract. But perhaps developing a reverence for, or at least a familiarity with, the very particular beauty present in the face of a Wessex crossbreed pig or a blue silkie cockerel is a good place to begin mending the divide.

Portrait of a Wessex crossbreed pig looking off to the side in dramatic lighting
Wessex crossbreed pig

“I wanted to portray the animals as dignified individuals, photographed in a way that lent them a value, an importance, that was of the same weight as paintings of aristocracy or our ancestors,” says Whitham. “Our perceptions have changed but their importance has not. I wanted to give back to them a light they had lost.”

Whitham’s photos are made to look more like paintings during post-processing, when she carefully adds layers of lightness and darkness, creating a dramatic chiaroscuro effect.

Portrait of a Galloway cattle looking straight at the camera in dramatic lighting
Galloway cattle

Getting these animals to pose for a portrait was a challenge. And sheep were by far the most difficult to capture. “The minute you spook one, they all take off,” she says. “There is a very fine line between them turning to look at you as you approach and them fleeing.” Fowl are also tricky—it’s hard to get them to look at the camera, and your best bet for getting a good picture is from inside their coop. Cows, on the other hand, are very curious, but, according to Whitham, “can also be pretty scary if they stampede down a hill at you.”

Portrait of a Greylag goose in profil in dramatic lighting
Greylag goose

Whitham lives in a rural area and actually has a few alpacas and chickens on her property, but she isn’t a vegetarian and doesn’t pretend to behave perfectly at the supermarket. “I do put ‘animal products’ into my trolley, and I try not to think about the individual who has died so I may eat,” she says. “But I do buy carefully. I think if we’re going to continue to eat animals we must give them the best lives and deaths possible.”

Portrait of a Wildshire horn ram looking straight at the camera, with curled horns in dramatic light
Wiltshire horn ram

When we see a portrait hanging in a gilded frame on a museum wall, we believe that what (or who) we see pictured is of great importance. And by capturing a Murray grey cow in the right pose, in good light, and with a degree of potential in its eye, Whitham is reminding us of that importance. We rely on these animals, which are as diverse in breed as man’s best friend, and they deserve our respect.


See more of Cally Whitham’s work on her website.

There are 53 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Regula
    April 22, 2016

    Beautiful images – and they show that these animals survived way longer than humans have so far. The crossbreed ewe looks timeless, prehistorical, biblical – an animal of timelessness. The look of the chicken confirms what every person who cares for animals knows: animals understand and know humans way better than humans know animals.

    Thank you for these pictures. They have great importance in rekindling in humans a sense of awe and respect for nature and time and the power of time.

    No, we shouldn’t eat these animals, though mankind has been a predator since the beginning of times. What changed is farming turning into factory farming and the killing of animals as a commodity “meat product” in the supermarket. That is wrong and should be undone. While it isn’t possible at this point in time to stop eating meat – there would be too many animals alive and they would soon starve for lack of food if left untouched – it is nevertheless necessary to go back to earlier ways of living, when meat was an exceptional treat for celebrations. That would leave animals to live as sentient and natural beings,and it would lead to understanding of humans as predators, but it would eliminate factory farming. The latter is pure cruelty and should be outlawed everywhere in the world. The way to it is decreasing meat consumption until it is less expensive again to let animals graze freely and let the mothers bring up their calves and lambs and piglets and chickens etc. Milk production does not depend on the current atrocious methods of ripping newborn calfs away from their mothers, of doping cows with hormones and antibiotics to over milk them. For thousands of years cows were milked after the calfs started eating grass. It means less milk per cow, but better milk. Same for sheep. It isn’t cruel to shear them in spring, on the contrary, it helps them. What is cruel is the mass production of wool which brings with it negligent shearing practices that hurt the sheep with utter cruelty. Chickens lay eggs independent of the presence of a rooster. It isn’t cruel to eat their unfertilized eggs. But it is cruel to keep them in excessively small cages or overcrowded so-called “free-range” indoor spaces in which often light is regulated to create two day cycles in 24 hours. None of that is necessary if people start to eat more like the cave dwellers did: roots, leaves, mushrooms nuts and berries most of the time, meat once in a long time. Which goes to confirm that humane treatment of animals would also solve most health problems from overly meat rich diets and cut health care costs. While for some populations in extreme climates, meat is the only food – including the animals’ blood – for the average city dweller, a lighter, more vegetarian diet would in fact be healthier.

    Again, thank you for giving these animals a new personality, a presence as animals not just food or wool or feathers for blankets. But as companions of human beings and oftentimes: rescuers of human beings since animals know extreme weather in advance and warn humans. Life used to be a symbiosis between animals and humans and that symbiosis has to be recovered.They need us. We need them – not just as food but way beyond the food.

  2. Dalton Bentley
    April 21, 2016

    The pig has evil eyes. I can in good conscience continue eating his kind, grin.

  3. Jim Richardson
    April 18, 2016

    Cally Whitham has done us a great service with her beautiful portraits of the worthy animals. These domesticated animals have also done us humans a great service, too, entering into partnership with humans as long ago as 10,000 years. And it goes the other way, too. Many, if not all, of these beautiful domesticated animals we see here would not be alive today if they were not part of the human food chain. These breeds are the product of that human/animal partnership. Without human usefulness most would go extinct.

    • Becky Harlan
      April 20, 2016

      That’s an angle that I hadn’t thought of before. Thanks for stretching my mind, Jim!

  4. Kam
    April 15, 2016

    For those that believe that there are no reasons why meat eating can’t be eradicated, you need to realize that not everyone can eat a vegetarian diet and it’s not based on desire but medically it is not possible for everyone (I’d be happy to list reasons) but we need to eat as little of it as possible when we can and give these animals the respect that they deserve because they are intelligent beautiful creatures that should be treated with dignity. I have had pet chickens ducks and geese and they were all just as amazing as as any traditional pet but so misunderstood by the general public.

    • Becky Harlan
      April 15, 2016

      I think you raise a good point, Kam. I’m a vegetarian, but my sister’s family has all sorts of eating restrictions—juvenile diabetes, severe food allergies to wheat, soy, etc. They could possibly still eat a vegetarian diet, but it would make eating together as a family a lot more difficult. I know to some people that is not an excuse, but it is important to remember that not everyone is starting at the same place or with the same set of needs.

  5. Sylvia
    April 14, 2016

    Mary Louise, there is no respectful way to murder an animal. Taking a life for no other selfish reason other than it tastes good, is despicable. There is no reason to eat/abuse/exploit/wear animals in this day/age/technology. You either don’t really care or are denying that animals are sentient beings that feel all the same emotions, love, fear, joy, sadness.

  6. Bill
    April 13, 2016

    In English the headline would read: “If Rembrandt HAD painted farm animals….”

  7. Suzanne
    April 13, 2016

    Well done, wish I could take photos half as good

  8. R. Bruce Van Gundy
    April 12, 2016

    Grand work, inspiring, enchanting, consuming. Grateful thanks and be well.

  9. Connie
    April 12, 2016

    The pictures are beautiful. The comments about most anything other than the pictures are not.

  10. Lyndel
    April 11, 2016

    The photographer needs to visit some farm animal sanctuaries. Where animals are free from human harm. You will see an whole different look in their eyes in the final images…

  11. Adrienne
    April 11, 2016

    As a former agriculture student I have to say I just love these photographs. Everyday when I drive to work I pass a number of those Greylag geese and just love seeing them. Thanks so much for these lovely pics.

  12. Mary Louise
    April 11, 2016

    I really love this series of photographs you have done. They are absolutely gorgeous and really show off the wonderful details of each one of these animals. I think it’s important, as you do, to respect nature, the animals that live in nature, and of course humans as well. I try to eat all local foods including meat where I live in Vermont. Keep up the wonderful work and don’t get too disappointed by some of the crazy comments you get about meat eaters vs non-meat eaters. I think that if we support small local farms that are respectful to their animals, it is better for the animals and certainly better for us! I’m a photographer as well and always enjoy seeing new work that incorporates some of the qualities of the Masters of painting.

  13. Joan
    April 11, 2016

    Author and photographer Becky Harlan has produced portraits of such beauty and depth, that many have written of the soul or spirit of the animals portrayed. Kudos to her and to the many who have written and noticed. Thank you to Jim for your comments on the taboo subject of population awareness. Two children per female is still too much, since we will only keep our current level of extreme overpopulation and our energy demands, land demands, etc. To those of you who eat meat, please get Certified Humane meat, dairy, and pet food. It’s out there!Anyway, Gorgeous portraits!

    • Becky Harlan
      April 11, 2016

      Thanks so much for your kind comments, Joan! I just wanted to clarify that I am only the author of this post. Cally Whitham is the artist who created these stunning portraits. We appreciate you sharing your thoughts and opinions here!

  14. Geoff Hellman
    April 11, 2016

    Nice photos, but rather Victorian and a little too chocolate boxy for my taste.

  15. Jason Dsouza
    April 11, 2016

    Absolutely fantastic photography!

  16. Alex T
    April 10, 2016

    wonderful photos, great title
    It would be great to find similar poses/gaze with humans – quite possible I think…

  17. Mary Finelli
    April 10, 2016

    “We rely on these animals…and they deserve our respect.”

    Seeing the beauty of animals is one thing, respecting them is another.

    We don’t need to rely on animals for use as food, and increasing numbers of people are acknowledging and acting on that. All of the nutrients we need to thrive can be obtained more healthfully, humanely, and environmentally from plant sources.

    Genuinely respecting our fellow sentient beings means not causing them needless harm. Needlessly harming animals is animal abuse. Genuinely respecting animals means being vegan, which is easier, better, and more compelling than ever. It is a moral imperative.

  18. Riopaso
    April 10, 2016

    Meet your meat. Every single animal killed to satiate your tastebuds was a work of art, a jewel of creation by the Universe, Mother Earth, evolution, God (if you are religious), requiring billions of years to come to be in the world. Then this amazing, beautiful, sentient being was terrified, tortured, it’s life force snuffed out, and its exquisite body rendered into mangled goo for some corporation’s profit and YOUR “enjoyment.” And so we all reap the toxic consequences of a culture based upon cruelty and violence toward animals (and the rest of nature): violence and cruelty toward ourselves, the hunger of millions, global pollution, climate change, species and habitat loss, antibiotic resistance, and, oh yes, epidemics of cancers, heart disease, diabetes, strokes, hypertension, digestive tract problems. None of this is necessary. Killing and torturing animals for their products should not be part of a modern society. Continuance of this barbaric, unsustainable and self-defeating practice not only demonstrates a spirituality as shallow as your food choices, it also represents a form of cultural insanity.

  19. Kenneth Jacobs
    April 10, 2016

    Human beings are at the top of the food chain. Little bugs are consumed by bigger bugs, etc. Man because of his intellect masters the animal kingdom and maintains a somewhat uncomfortable truce between living things in order to survive and dominate. Nothing romantic about reality.

  20. Anne O’Connor
    April 10, 2016

    Thank you for these portraits. I live in a village with Galloway cows and they and these portraits make my day.

  21. Julie Freccia
    April 10, 2016

    Thank you for bringing awareness and showing the beauty of these animals. I would have never seen how amazing these farm animals are and yes, they deserve our respect. My views have been profoundly changed.

  22. Belinda
    April 10, 2016

    Beautiful Photos.
    I appreciate the artist’s ethical investment in their work. Whether or not I agree the the artist’s apparent morals are COMPLETELY IRRELEVANT here. There are alot of ‘shoulda, coulda, woulda, oughta’ judgemental commentators here today and I say walk a mile in the artist’s shoes first.

  23. Jo
    April 10, 2016

    grew up on a family farm where all animals were royalty, these picture bestow majesty on them that is well deserved

  24. Beth
    April 10, 2016

    Glorious images! I especially appreciate the use of less common species in these photographs. There are so many types of cattle, fowl, hogs, and sheep to appreciate. Have you ever gone to a county fair in an agricultural area. The fowl alone will blow your mind and broaden your view of domestic animals. Thank you!

  25. Susan
    April 10, 2016

    Amazing how Callie imparts a deep sense of sadness to so many of her animal portraits.

  26. Ellen
    April 10, 2016

    Fabulous photos, though I found the one of the pig very sad. She’s a symbol of our times however, and how we exploit and abuse animals.

  27. Alice L. Hartwell
    April 10, 2016

    Beautiful photos!! But I don’t understand how you can take such fabulous up close and personal photos, and write such a compelling article, and still eat meat! How do you justify that?

  28. Ronaele Snyder
    April 10, 2016

    Absolutely beautiful photographs – each looks like one would like a hug. I do think that gluttony in regards to meat eating is too prevalent – doing WWII we only had meat for Sunday dinners and food rationing was the norm, as was eating leftovers til they were gone. I don’t remember even knowing any overweight children or grownups back then. There were no drive thru or delivery, except for milk by horse cart, ice for ice boxes or coal. Simpler times but we can make changes for the better in regards to the care and treatment of all animals, least we forget that we are their caregivers.

  29. Shraddha Nayak
    April 10, 2016

    Incredible way of bringing these not- so-appreciated animals to light, both literally and figuratively! Splendid!

  30. cristina
    April 10, 2016

    very touching!

  31. Janice
    April 10, 2016

    Beautiful photos and descriptions. Thank you for making their importance come to light in a beautiful way.

  32. Judi Podgurski
    April 10, 2016

    Oh dear…very touchy subject here, but the real topic is the wonderful artwork presented. The work is absolutely beautiful, and a lovely homage to Rembrandt indeed. I would be honored to hang any of these wonderful portraits in my home.

  33. Martha Knight
    April 10, 2016

    Correction, Laura. Natural fertilizer can be produced without running plant, or other, matter through the digestive systems of animals, and then composting the output. That is inefficient. Just compost the plant matter, or even waste foodstuffs. Farmers have been composting directly since there has been farming. Another way is planting “green manure” crops, then planting food crops in rotation with food crops.

  34. Becky Stewart
    April 10, 2016

    Once again, it all boils down to RESPECT.

  35. Amanda
    April 10, 2016

    I love these. We raise cattle and chickens. We love our animals and I often take pictures of them.

  36. Jan Ross
    April 10, 2016

    Gorgeous photos and article. I was reminded of Temple Grandin.

  37. Jim
    April 10, 2016

    The demand for meat is obviously huge. Unfortunately animals, especially beef, are a big factor in global warming. But none of our problems nor the problems these animals face will ever be reduced unless humans come to grips with the fact that we are bleeding our planet dry with overpopulation. Unless humans start cutting back on our reproductive habits this planet and all its inhabitants are going to be in serious trouble.

  38. Brenda
    April 10, 2016

    Incredible, absolutely stunning artwork.

  39. SHIVA SHANKER PRASAD
    April 10, 2016

    Nice photographs and very serious attempt to photograph these innocent creatures of nature.

  40. Diane
    April 10, 2016

    These portraits are lovely. Thanks for giving these creatures beauty. We do become distanced from them and your photos remind us of their beauty. Regardless of how awful we humans can be, you’ve reminded us to look for the qualities of these animals that we depend on for food. Thank you!

  41. Kathleen
    April 10, 2016

    Exquisite portraits. Start where you are w/gratitude and compassion.

  42. Doug Buckmaster
    April 10, 2016

    Stunning shots. The photos in this article show the beauty of nature. I would be most interested in seeing your workflow process. Again haunting beautiful photographs.

  43. Mikki
    April 10, 2016

    Beautiful inspiring work.

  44. Robert Perry
    April 10, 2016

    Responding to Laura’s comment: The elephant in the room is population explosion and greed. But Mother Nature will correct this very soon.

  45. MARY ANNE DAGATA
    April 9, 2016

    These portraits are stunning. Spending time with any animal, if you are empathetic at all, you can see their souls as these paintings do…

  46. Laura
    April 8, 2016

    Correction, you do not need meat IF you have access to a wide variety of vegetables, berries, fruits, nuts, beans, and legumes. Which only a few climates can support. And only a few economies can afford the supplemental care those plants would need to survive, let alone thrive, in an unsuitable environment. The rest require importation. Now, lets ignore the fuel usage and pollution caused by the transportation. That calls for……commercial farming! Yaaaaay commercial farming. A blight on the environment. Destroying local habitats and killing local plants and animals. Awesome, sounds good. Let’s continue, shall we? Ignoring the insecticides, pesticides, and herbicides that are absolutely awful for local wildlife (not just the ones directly affected, but right on up the food chain), it’s not so bad, right? No? Hmmm….. OK, how about the fertilizer required to keep the soil healthy enough to even grow crops repeatedly, as commercial farming is all about maximum yield (which it would need to be, since it’s feeding the entire world). You have the option for artificial or natural fertilizers. I’m going to assume nobody wants artificial fertilizers, because a bunch of artificial crap in food isn’t really healthy. Well, that calls for composted feces, then. Phenomenal fertilizer. The plants adore it. But, feces requires animals. And lots of feces requires lots of animals. Which would mean we would have to keep animals anyway. That aside, the processing plants are still more destroyed land…and more to process means more plants. Not to mention that animal products are used in the making of most plastics (except for those super fun plant based water bottles)….so since meat is no longer a thing, those animals are still being killed because we use them for more than just din-din.

    On the note of plastics…..and hypocrisy. Your phone, tablet, or computer. The one used to make your comment about hypocrisy. There are plastics in it. In the cards, in the components, and in the casing. Plastics made using animal byproducts. It came from several factories that destroyed habitat and cause pollution, and likely realistically killed a few critters in transport, since trucks are awesome at hitting small animals. The network you used? Also uses plastics. And the buildings destroyed habitats. The power? Oh man….power is bad juju when it comes to the ecosystem. So much goes into it, it’s almost ridiculous.

    It’s much more sustainable and environmentally friendly to just grow/raise what you can in your own space and minimize your reliance on commercial products than to have everyone jump to being vegan.

  47. James
    April 8, 2016

    I like the paintings. But If you want to respect farm animals, don’t pay people to murder them.

  48. MORGAN
    April 7, 2016

    As an artist myself I find these images quite beautiful with a lot of thought and time put into them. However, your article is hypocritical. “I wanted to give back to them a light they had lost.” You make sure that the light in those beautiful eyes go out every single day when you place meat products into your grocery cart. You’re still condoning it. You want people to get reconnected to these animals through your art but not through their stomachs? “…something we still rely on to survive.” We don’t need animal flesh to survive. “And sheep were by far the most difficult to capture. “The minute you spook one, they all take off,” she says. “There is a very fine line between them turning to look at you as you approach and them fleeing.” What do you think they do when they’re about to be slaughtered? Are you really so brainwashed to believe that a slaughtered animal has “a good death”? The experience fear, love and grief just like we do. And lastly, “they deserve our respect.” Then stop eating them and start being conscious. Art mimics life, so why don’t you put aside your hypocrisy and start living your art.

  49. Artnethouse Images
    April 7, 2016

    I think it is a next photo trend 🙂

  50. Donna
    April 7, 2016

    So creative! Some of these animals look more dignified than the people Rembrandt painted!

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