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A figure with a skull-like face grips a tree and carries a tiger, surrounded by animal corpses.

A shrouded, emaciated figure with brownish skin and a skull-like face holds a snarling tiger in their left hand. The tiger’s claws are splayed and its tail is curled. In their right hand the figure grips the branch of a withered tree. In front of the figure and tiger is the body of a dead elephant, its head facing left with its trunk extended outward. In the background is a dead lion, a dead camel, other shapes suggesting more animal corpses, and a red setting sun.

Gallery Text

Beard was active in Buffalo and in New York City, where he had a studio in the 1860s in the famous Tenth Street Building alongside painters including John La Farge. He specialized in animal paintings whose anthropomorphized subjects satirize human folly. Painted shortly before Beard’s death, this work is his most macabre. Death, an animated corpse wearing a shroud, grips a withered tree and strangles a tiger with his bare hand. The bodies of other exotic animals — a lion, a camel, and an elephant — are strewn around a dark and desiccated wilderness. A red sun gleams eerily on the horizon. Beard likely studied the animals in what began as a menagerie in New York’s Central Park, or in P. T. Barnum’s American Museum on lower Broadway. He may have been inspired by notorious circus disasters of the time, including the death of Barnum’s prize elephant, Jumbo, who was struck by a train in 1885.

Identification and Creation

Object Number
William Holbrook Beard, American (Painesville, OH 1824 - 1900 New York, NY)
Power of Death
Work Type
c. 1889-1890
Persistent Link

Physical Descriptions

Oil on board
53.7 x 44.1 cm (21 1/8 x 17 3/8 in.)
frame: 76.2 x 67.3 x 7 cm (30 x 26 1/2 x 2 3/4 in.)


Recorded Ownership History
Acquired by Alexander Gallery, New York, before 1981

Acquisition and Rights

Credit Line
Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Purchase through the generosity of Howard E. Cox, Elizabeth Gosnell Miller, Mrs. John S. Hamlen, Lawrence J. Lasser, George Lewis, Michael Maher, James W. McGlothlin, Robert H. and Dale Mnookin, Thomas R. and Ann Schwarz, Charles O. Wood, III and Miriam M. Wood, and other friends in honor of James Cuno
Accession Year
Object Number
European and American Art

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Publication History

  • Samuel Green Wheeler Benjamin, "An American Humorist in Paint, William H. Beard, N.A.", The Magazine of Art (1882), V, pp. 14-19, p. 15
  • "William H. Beard Dead", The New York Times (February 21, 1900), p. 7
  • Maria Naylor, ed., The National Academy of Design Exhibition Record, 1861-1900 (New York, NY, 1973), vol. 1, p. 44.
  • William H. Gerdts, William Holbrook Beard: Animals in Fantasy, exh. cat., Alexandre Gallery (New York, NY, 1981), pp. 6, 11, 16, cover
  • Theodore E. Stebbins, Jr. and Melissa Renn, American Paintings at Harvard, Volume One: Paintings, Watercolors, and Pastels by Artists Born before 1826, Yale University Press (U.S.) and Harvard Art Museums (Cambridge and New Haven, 2014), pp. 35, 86, cat. 37, ill.

Exhibition History

  • Annual Exhibition, National Academy of Design, New York, 01/01/1890 - 12/31/1890
  • William Holbrook Beard: Animals in Fantasy, Alexander Gallery, New York, 04/21/1981 - 05/16/1981
  • 32Q: 2130 19th Century, Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, 11/16/2014 - 05/02/2022

Subjects and Contexts

  • Google Art Project
  • Collection Highlights

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This record has been reviewed by the curatorial staff but may be incomplete. Our records are frequently revised and enhanced. For more information please contact the Division of European and American Art at