Marc Chagall, “The Two Pigeons,” 1952
Marc Chagall, “The Two Pigeons,” 1952


Fables in Art

by Judith Brown

Fables, which are short fictional stories usually involving animals to illustrate a moral idea, are a unique sphere of art that has been presented in different ways. One of the most famous fabulists was Jean De La Fontaine (1621-1695). He reinvented the fables of Aesop, and his collection is a classic piece of French literature. 

Two artists who are known for portraying La Fontaine’s fables are Jean-Baptiste Oudry (1686-1755) and Marc Chagall (1887-1985). Both had a special resonance with the atmosphere of these fables, based on their artistic interests. Oudry’s connection to the fables is not surprising, given the fact that he was famous for painting animals and hunting scenes. In 1726, Oudry was working as a designer at the Royal Tapestry works at Beauvais for the Louis XV tapestries, and in 1734 he became director of the factory. His love for landscapes and the natural world possibly drew him to the fables as, according to an early biographer, he enjoyed making these drawings and stayed close to the storylines.[1] In 1751, Oudry sold his drawings to a collector and they were reproduced as illustrations in a book of La Fontaine fables, published in four volumes between 1755 and 1760. Having been dispersed through private collections, many of these drawings are now held by museums all over the world.

As for Chagall’s affinity with the LaFontaine fables, he was recognised by the art dealer Ambroise Vollard as being the ideal “romantic” to depict La Fontaine’s ethereal works.[2] Chagall produced his etchings of the fables between 1928-1931, but they were not released until 1952. Although both artists utilize a poetic imagination to visualize the fables, Oudry portrays them in a very detailed way, being careful to adhere to place and character. Chagall focussed on the “essence of the fable.”[3]  Chagall was born in 1887 in Russia, where he was influenced by contemporary Russian painting. He developed a distinctive style, childlike, often centring on images from his childhood. From 1910-1914 he lived in Paris and absorbed the works of the leading cubist, surrealist and fauvist painters. The fusion of fantasy, religion and nostalgia infuses his work with a joyous quality.

Both of these artists depicted the fable The Rat and the Elephant, and from looking at these works we can see the differences between the approaches of the two artists. It involves a rat who notices an elephant belonging to the king during a royal procession and becomes jealous of him. The rat gets put in its place by a cat, and the moral of the fable is that it is foolish to believe that one is like someone else. How could the rat be so stupid as to believe it is anything but a rat in comparison to the elephant, fully knowledgeable of its load? 

Jean-Baptiste Oudry, “The Rat and the Elephant,” 1732
Jean-Baptiste Oudry, “The Rat and the Elephant,” 1732

In Chagall’s etching, which was one of many plates on the fables he produced between 1927–1930, we do not see the rat at all and are presented with a whimsical sketch of the elephant with a three–tier basket on top, full of people. Chagall portrays the worlds that rest on the elephant’s back, such as the emperor and the cat. Although it is the elephant we see, if we look closely, there is a subtle suggestion that the rat is underneath the elephant. At the very least we can see that the elephant is drawn in a way where it looks half rat, half elephant. The overall allegory, it seems, is that the rat is so insignificant that it barely forms part of the real scene. Chagall shows us the universes of each individual the elephant is carrying, while Oudry details the scene in all its grandeur, the elephant fully knowing that he is carrying them all.

Marc Chagall, “The Rat and the Elephant,” 1952
Marc Chagall, “The Rat and the Elephant,” 1952

The rat has no appreciation of any of this and does not perceive the cat. He is foolishly self-confident and does not even begin to realise the inferiority of his position and the superiority of the elephant. In Oudry’s version, we see the tiny rat at the bottom corner, and its size in comparison to the elephant makes us recognise the moral immediately. The colors in both depictions are quite muted, with the artists utilizing black and white tones, but there is a brightness to Chagall’s work in how the “windows” of the different universes are yellow, purple and green. It seems important to notice the green that is used for the cat ― it is a piercing shade of green, perhaps coinciding with a cat’s eyes, and is typical of Chagall’s imaginary use of color, being that he borrowed ideas from the fauvist movement (which put emphasis on strong colors). The fauvist artists, such as Matisse, who looked up to Chagall, used bold colors to express feeling. But in the case of Chagall, who chose juxtapositioning colors, they transmit the originality of his ideas, too. At the same time, he conveyed metaphors which were strongly his own, and this is highly apparent in his work on the La Fontaine fables. 

Oudry’s presentation of The Fox and the Stork is an interesting example of his adherence to the fable’s setting and use of character, in contrast to Chagall’s more surreal approach. The scenery is intricately presented. The story of this fable is that a fox invites a stork to share a meal with him in his natural habitat, which appears to be the earthy area in a kind of forest. He serves the meal on a plate from which the stork is unable to eat because of its long beak. To exact his “revenge,” the stork invites the fox back for a meal at his home, probably closer to the trees. The fox is not so clever as one would think, because in addition to being oblivious to the stork’s feelings, he underestimates the stork’s intelligence, and does not for a moment think that he would find a way to exact revenge. He thought that the stork was so simple and naïve and frightened of him that he would make him a nice dinner in return, despite having been so insulted by the fox. But the stork is not frightened at all. He is an agile big bird that the fox could not harm, and he has some intelligence. Oudry conveys this idea in the facial expressions of the two animals. The fox looks predatory, while the stork looks upset but also clever, as if he is reflecting on the situation in front of him in a detached, yet emotional way. Further, the scenery draws a distinction between the fox and the stork in that the fox seems to reside in the lowest, earthy area which is emphasised by his brown coloring, while the stork is white and more aligned with the color of the sky and the trees. The fox lives close to the undergrowth of shrubs.

Jean-Baptiste Oudry, The Fox and the Stork, 1747
Jean-Baptiste Oudry, "The Fox and the Stork," 1747

In The Two Pigeons, we see Oudry’s typical black ink and grey wash set against a blue background. The print has a somewhat bittersweet mood and a detailed awareness of the fable’s setting. In contrast to The Fox and the Stork, the scenery is barren with a mountainous background, appearing winter-like, as opposed to the natural browns and greens of the livelier, though equally upsetting, The Fox and the StorkThe Two Pigeons tells the story of two pigeons who live together in harmony until one of them longs to explore the wider world. Although his fellow pigeon implores him not to go for fear of his safety, he embarks on his travels intending to return to his friend after three days. After a series of dangerous mishaps, he returns to his companion and here we see their reunion. Black and white chalks were Oudry’s favourite medium, and we see in The Two Pigeons that he utilizes this combination to convey the scene of a derelict landscape inhabited only by the two birds. It is again a very detailed presentation and we see the beginning, middle and end of the fable. 

Jean-Baptiste Oudry, “The Two Pigeons,” 1731
Jean-Baptiste Oudry, “The Two Pigeons,” 1731

Marc Chagall, “The Two Pigeons,” 1952
Marc Chagall, “The Two Pigeons,” 1952​

In Chagall’s version, a different mood is present, compared to Oudry’s eerie one. We are presented with the emotion of love, and through the depiction of the fable[TS1] , he relates the animal characterisation to human experiences. Against the black and white backdrop, the pigeons represent a dreamlike vision of transcendent love and otherworldliness. Chagall’s repeated use of purple, yellow and green is an example of his experimenting with new colors and shapes. In both versions the muted colors create a stillness that is able to convey the theme of reunion after separation. Also, the purple and yellow on the birds make them stand out, while adding a surreal feeling.

 Marc Chagall, “The Fish and the Fisherman,” 1952
Marc Chagall, “The Fish and the Fisherman,” 1952

His The Fish and the Fisherman, another one of La Fontaine’s fables, is a further example of the way Chagall combined the use of space with both color and symbolism. It is very clear from this painting how he sought a freedom of expression, which combined conventional features with independence of thought. For example, the fisherman’s eye meets that of the fish, just at the precise angle to create the necessary tension, and the beautiful blue watery background subdues this. This creates the perfect balance between the power dynamic that the fable expresses and the surrealism of Chagall’s work. In the fable, the fisherman debates whether to take the fish or to wait for a greater gain in the future. The composition of the work brings out its meaning. It is not only whimsical but also touching. It is interesting to discuss why the fables might have been attractive as the basis for artistic depictions, but as we can see, these two artists express in their own ways the depth that lies behind them. 


Adrian Hamilton, “Chagall’s true colours[TS1]  are shining through”, The Independent, June 2013

[1] Jean-Baptiste Oudry | The Fables of La Fontaine: The Two Pigeons (

[2] Marc Chagall - Fables of La Fontaine by Goldmark Gallery - issuu

[3] Marc Chagall - Fables of La Fontaine by Goldmark Gallery - issuu

About the Author

Judith Brown is a freelance writer who, after obtaining a masters in English from Kings College London, continued to pursue an interest in art. In her articles she draws links between art and literature, showing how both mediums have meaning in today's world.

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