The Rectangular Cows: Geometric Livestock Depicted in 19th-Century British Paintings


Imagine stepping into the past, traveling to 19th century England. On the canvas, a lone cow stands in the middle of a tranquil countryside – a familiar scene, but with a twist.

This is the riddle of the 'Rectangular Cows of England', an artistic mystery that has intrigued people for years.

Imagine a gallery where each frame holds a secret. A lone cow stands at the center, her presence strikingly real, yet oddly abstract.

What attracts attention is the uncanny rectangular shape in which these cows have been drawn.

What is the reason for this strange phenomenon? Which artistic currents, which social undercurrents conspired to create these strange depictions?

During the 19th century in England, prosperous farmers tried to demonstrate their wealth and status by creating artworks depicting their livestock, including cows, pigs, and sheep.

These commissioned pieces often contained exaggerated depictions of animals with unusual proportions.

For example, pigs may be depicted round like an inflated football, cows in rectangular shapes, and sheep in oval shapes.

This artistic trend coincides with a period when farmers were actively experimenting with selective breeding and innovative feeding methods for larger livestock farming.

The art of livestock depiction was at its peak during this period. Racehorses were usually depicted with smooth lines that conveyed their speed and grace.

However, for farm animals, a stronger body was preferred. In these paintings, cows, sheep and pigs were depicted as giant figures, awkwardly balanced on their four pivoting legs.

On occasion, the animal's owner will be included in the artwork, proudly looking over their prized possession.

Alternatively, the animals stood alone, often depicted as if they could swallow an entire nearby village. The resulting images served as both advertisements and panoramic spectacles.

Large animals are highly valued based on size and weight as evidence of their owners' success in breeding.

Wealthy and experienced farmers achieved this by using selective breeding methods that led to the growth of faster-growing, heavier livestock.

Along with these breeding efforts, innovative farming and feeding practices contributed to the overall increase in animal size.

These individuals, called "improvers", were motivated to enhance existing animal breeds. Popular methods such as feeding oil cakes and turnips to cows to fatten them up before slaughter became widespread.

Commissioned paintings and commercial prints often include details such as the animal's measurements and information about the owner's breeding efforts.

According to animal studies expert Ron Broglio, these drawings often exaggerate the animals' features to create an idealized form, often including "adding a little more fat in important areas".

For example, pigs were envisioned in a shape resembling an American football, cows were depicted in an oblong shape, and sheep were angled toward an oblong shape.

Two factors combine to give cows their distinctive angular appearance. First, it is the square rump, although its cause remains a puzzle.

Secondly, attention is drawn to the pronounced bulge – the brisket – in front of their front legs. Interestingly, research also shows that during cattle competitions or judging, this brisket plays an important role.

Besides making wealthy farmers famous, animal paintings and prints also had a useful purpose.

Farmers across the country can use a photo of a particular animal to advertise their animals.

Animals that looked nicer were worth more money, showing how big a role an animal's appearance plays in determining how it is bred.

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