The Modern Artist Who Found Creative Awakening in Animals

The exhilarating and poignant art of Franz Marc

Christopher P Jones
7 min readNov 3, 2023

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Animals in a Landscape (1914) by Franz Marc. Oil on canvas. 110.2 × 99.7 cm. Detroit Institute of Arts, Michigan, U.S. Image source DIA (public domain)

The artist Franz Marc was just 36 years old when a piece of loose shrapnel struck him on the head and killed him instantly during the Battle of Verdun in 1916.

What makes the incident more tragic is that just a few weeks before he’d been identified by the German government as a significant artist to be withdrawn from the front line.

Yet the notice didn’t reach him in time and Marc lost his life before his reassignment order arrived.

Page from Franz Marc’s sketchbook, as reproduced in “Das Buch enthält Franz Marcs Briefe aus dem Felde, Tagebuch-Aufzeichnungen und Aphorismen.” Image source Internet Archive

Afterwards, when Marc’s possessions were collected from his soldier’s quarters, among them was a sketchbook. Page after page of drawings show ideas in development.

What’s interesting is that the book contains no scenes witnessed from trench warfare, but drawings of animals in dynamic and energetic poses. Horses, deer, foxes, bears — these were the forms that Marc remembered on the front line and reinvented in his half-imagined sketchbook.

And when we look at his life, it becomes evident that what he left behind was a unique and tantalising body of work.

Like Nobody Else

The Foxes (1913) by Franz Marc. Oil on canvas. 88 × 66 cm. Private collection. Image source Rawpixel (public domain)

Franz Marc was like no other modern artist. Drawing on the language of early 20th-century painting, he fused abstract arrangements with a subject matter that seemed at first so alien to the modern industrialised world.

But Marc’s engagement with wild animals was precisely in response to the scientific and technological advances of his age. He wondered why there should be so much celebration over progress in science and yet so little attention given to the spirit of nature — indeed, he had a particularly close affinity to animals.

People were “ugly”, as he put it once in a letter, by which he meant that they could be selfish, calculating and venal.

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