John James Audubon, "Lutra Canadensis, Canada Otter" (image courtesy the New York Public Library)

Though seals are probably the gateway to aquatic mammal fandom, connoisseurs of the genre all agree that otters are best in class. These furry powerhouses are not only capable of tender intimacy and novel tool usage, they often just seem to be having the best time ever. So it’s no wonder that they have been a recurring motif throughout art history, and not just a mainstay of aquarium gift shops and Etsy stores. Join us as we offer a salute to our favorite member of the Mustelidae family in various visual media! It would be shellfish of us to keep it to ourselves.

Though better known for his bird illustrations, John James Audubon’s last major work was The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America, produced in collaboration with his friend, the Reverend John Bachman, who wrote the text that accompanies his illustrations. On his final drawing expedition in 1843, Audubon traveled with his son up the Missouri River to document and depict the four-legged mammals of North America — including, of course, otters.

John James Audubon, “Lutra Canadensis” (image courtesy the New York Public Library)

But the love of these little water scamps goes back much further than a couple of centuries. On view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art is just one example of otters as a common motif during the Late Period and Ptolemaic times.

“The pose of raised paws signifies the otter’s adoration of the sun god when he rises in the morning,” reads the label on this Ancient Egyptian bronze statuette, dating to between 664 and 30 BCE. “In myth otters were attached to the goddess Wadjet of Lower Egypt, whose cult was centered in Buto, in the northern Delta.” How did I not know until today that there is a cult of otter-worshippers, and where do I sign up?

Otter statue (664–30 BCE), late Period or Ptolemaic Period (image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

For high otter drama, you can hardly do better than the standoff in Pieter Boel’s painting “Otter Harassed by Dogs” (c. 1600) currently in the collection of El Museo del Prado in Madrid, Spain. It’s pretty terrible to see two of animalkind’s most playful creatures locked in a death match, but art does not always come here to make friends, it comes to tell harsh truths. And the harsh truth is, otters could mess you up at any time, so try to stay on their good side.

Pieter Boel, “Otter Harassed by Dogs” (c. 1600-1650) (image via Wikimedia Commons)

Obviously, otters are a common motif in ancient and contemporary animal fetish carvings, such as this example of an “otter toy” from Cape Prince Of Wales, Alaska, part of the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History collection. According to the Toh-Atin Gallery, otters as a fetish animal represent “balanced femininity,” and maybe that’s what makes them so irresistible!

Otter toy, Cape Prince Of Wales, Alaska, United States, North America (image courtesy Smithsonian Museum of Natural History)

For the painfully literal seeking out otters in museum collections, nothing can hold a candle to the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York, whose permanent River Otter installation and background mural in the Hall of North American Mammals was captured by AMNH photographer Denis Finnin. “As morning mist veils a lake in Algonquin Provincial Park, a young female river otter comes ashore and inspects a spider web,” reads the AMNH image description — and it’s true, it’s really true.

River Otter installation at AMNH (photo by Denis Finnin, courtesy AMNH)

Speaking of meditative otters, a beautiful painting on silk from the Meiji period, the work of Japanese artist Seki Shūkō, is sure to meet all your needs for minimalist marine mammals. You can practically hear the noise of the rushing river, and if you listen closely, perhaps the otters will whisper their furry secrets to you.

Seki Shuko, “Otters Swimming,” Japan, Meiji period (1868–1912) (image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

But otters need not only be social animals, they can also be voices for animal welfare, as a woodcut by South Korean artist Shumu demonstrates.

Shumu, “Snow (Otter)” (2022), woodcut (image courtesy Shumu)

“Animals are different from humans in language and appearance,” the artist said in a message to Hyperallergic. “But animals feel the same or similar pain as humans, and they have emotions. Species discrimination against animals must stop. I hope that by continuing to work and share the life of veganism, it can become a small but resonant message.”

A sea otter in the style of “Girl with a Pearl Earring” by Johannes Vermeer, an image generated by DALL-E (image courtesy OpenAI)

But of course, otters in art are not relegated to the past. Indeed, with new artificial intelligence image-generation technology, the possibilities of fine art otters (fine artters?) are limitless. And I, for one, couldn’t be happier.

Sarah Rose Sharp is a Detroit-based writer, activist, and multimedia artist. She has shown work in New York, Seattle, Columbus and Toledo, OH, and Detroit — including at the Detroit Institute of Arts....

One reply on “Otters Are Art History’s Unsung Muses”

  1. Still in print, Gavin Maxwell’s 1960 love letter to sea otters’ playful lives in the remote Western Highlands of coastal Scotland, “Ring of Bright Water” is as visual as it is heartrending. Should have a place on every artist’s bookshelf.

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