Society & Animals Journal of Human-Animal Studies
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Volume 1, Number 2


Corpulent Cattle and Milk Machines: Nature, Art and the Ideal Type

Michael S. Quinn 1
York University, Canada

The concept of a "breed" of domestic cattle is predominantly a social construct. The late eighteenth century development of intensive selective (in)breeding of livestock produced breeds that were visually distinguishable from each other. The adoption of breed standards was facilitated in part through paintings and drawings of idealized animals. These "ideal types" or "standards of perfection" further served as targets for breeders who attempted to achieve the artist's conception of the perfect animal. However, concepts of perfection change with fashion and thus ideal types constitute moving targets.

The relationships between humans and non-human domesticated animals are highly complex phenomena of eminent social significance. Generations of interaction between humans and suitable domesticates have resulted in marked interdependence. Human societies rely on these animals for both physical products (such as food, fuel, power and raw materials), and a myriad of more intangible roles (symbols of wealth or prestige, or religious belief; aesthetic pleasure; verbal symbolism and vocabulary) (Dyson, 1972). These relationships provide an opportunity to explore the dynamic oscillation between human acceptance and denial of our being fully within the domain of animality (Carson, 1972; Ingold, 1988).

 "Our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature" (Lakoff and Johnson, 1980). Sabloff (1991) investigated human-nonhuman animal relations in three domains of Canadian cultural life: domestic, workplace or "factory," and public or "civic" domains. Her results suggest that a separate ruling metaphor "constrained cognitive ordering processes and guided behaviors in different ways" within each of the three domains. She posits that a "kinship metaphor pattern[s] human relations with animals in the domestic domain, the artifact metaphor in the factory domain, and the citizenship metaphor in the civic domain." These metaphors act as mechanisms of ordering the natural world and thus determine what type of behaviour is acceptable toward nonhuman animals.

Domestic cattle, as "live-stock," predominantly occupy the factory domain in modern Western society; they are bought and sold as market goods. Altered from their ancestral form by human intervention, these animals exist as cultural artifacts (Reed, 1959). Thousands of years of selection, coupled with modern genetic manipulation, have resulted in a gaping chasm between most domestic animals and their wild progenitors. For many, such as our modern breeds of cattle, they are placeless creatures. The "regulated alteration of genomes of organisms [have made] them into slaves that cannot be liberated, like comatose patients hooked without reprieve to the economic machine" (Shepard, 1992). A recent livestock textbook, under the sub-heading "the real purpose of cattle," states simply that "[t]he primary purpose of cattle is ... to convert roughage to meat, milk, and by-products" (Briggs and Briggs, 1980). Thus, viewed as a product of human ingenuity, cattle are stripped of their subjectness to be dealt with as mere objects. The cluster of concomitants of the animal-as-artifact metaphor, includes a denial of sentience, discardability and a lack of moral standing (Sabloff, 1991).

The animal-as-artifact metaphor enables formalization of the concept of domestic breeds. "A breed is a group of animals that has been changed by [hu]man to possess a uniform appearance that is inheritable and distinguishes it from other groups of animals within the same species" (Clutton-Brock, 1981). The profusion of breeds that exist today makes it difficult to fathom that most of our domestic animal species are descended from a single progenitor species or small group of closely related species. All domestic dogs, for example, belong to the same species, Canis familiaris . Hence, the Great Dane and the Pekinese are theoretically capable of interbreeding and both are descended from wolf ancestors. Selective breeding dates back to the Neolithic roots of domestication, but the proliferation of well-defined breeds is predominantly a product of the past two centuries (Ritvo, 1990).

Although breeds are characterized by unique physical and behavioral characteristics, the notion of breeds exists primarily as a social construct. That is, in order for a breed to exist, enough people have to agree that the animals in question are sufficiently unique from other breeds and conform to some set of standards for that breed. A breed exists for us as a fact because we can all see it; it is what Evernden (1992) terms the "democratization of knowledge." The standards that are created to demarcate breeds are presented in the form of an "ideal type" or "standard of perfection," a hypothetical model of the perfect member of the breed. The primary characters that distinguish breeds are most often related to outward appearance (phenotype).

The standards of perfection developed for breeds of cattle are primarily those correlated with the intended purpose of the animal/artifact (eg. the proportions of desirable "cuts" in beef cattle or the size and shape of the udder in dairy cattle). However, some criteria are highly arbitrary (eg. a white stripe on the back of a Hereford is discriminated against by some breeders (Briggs and Briggs, 1980). In sum, breeds are created by humans for aesthetic, economic or ritual reasons through selective breeding practices based on a conception of how the perfect animal should look and act or perform.

This paper is an historical interpretation of how a small groups of individuals were able to initiate the social construction of a breed of cattle. In particular I will focus on the role of graphic representation in both establishing and further altering the form of a breed. Shepard (1967), among others, has argued that the ideals portrayed in Italian Renaissance landscape painting were subsequently transferred to the actual landscape. People were taught what was considered "picturesque" and moulded the landscape to fit the ideal. My thesis is that livestock portraiture plays an analogous role in molding new forms of animals.

Early Cattle and Cattle Portraiture

The artistic representation of bovine subjects traces its origins to the earliest known art. The first subjects of painting were animals, the first medium was probably animal blood and bovids were among the first animals painted (Berger, 1980; Klingender, 1971). The little we know about the experience of prehistoric humans is greatly enriched by the legacy of their paintings. Livingston (1973) suggests these graphic representations mark the dawn of a new relationship between human and nonhuman animals. The new magic of symbolism was probably meant to increase the odds in favor of the hunter and is thereby "the deliberate manipulating of natural objects toward the goals of human will." We cannot know for certain why Cro-Magnon humans toiled in the depths of caverns to create elaborate depictions of their fellow creatures. However, more than a reflection of the artist, graphic reflection helps others to learn how animals are to be seen and thus treated.

Palaeolithic cave art clearly depicts animals recognizable as Bos primigenius , the aurochs (plural: aurochsen). It is from the aurochsen, the wild cattle of northern Europe and Asia, that all contemporary domestic cattle are descended. The earliest certain evidence for the domestication of cattle has been dated to c. 6400 B.C. from a site in Turkey (Clutton-Brock, 1981). The aurochs was eventually extirpated from western Europe near the end of the fourteenth century, but lingered on until 1627 when the last known cow died in Poland (Fraser, 1972). The legacy of aurochsen is recognized today by taxonomic authorities as two species of domestic cattle: Bos taurus, the domestic humpless cattle and the zebu, Bos indicus , the humped cattle of India and Asia. The genetic constitution of all modern cattle breeds is traceable to these progenitors which in turn can be traced to Bos primigenius .

The selection of desirable traits in domestic species, even if unconsciously, dates back to the initial attempts at domestication (Reed, 1959). However, the earliest certain evidence for willful selective breeding of cattle comes to us from the paintings and artifacts of ancient Egypt, more than five thousand years ago (Morse, 1912). Other societies subsequently developed selection techniques, populations of cattle were moved and bred with other forms, and local traditions established characteristic regional phenotypes. By the Middle Ages there was a great deal of variation in the appearance of domestic cattle across Europe and Asia.

Cattle, primarily oxen, had long been the work animals of Europe. Oxen pulled carts, logs, stumps and a variety of simple farm implements. These animals were usually worked for about ten years and were then slaughtered for food (Fussell, 1929). Cows were likely kept for a similar period of time for milk and also for breeding. Horses, much smaller than the draught animals that would follow, played only a minor role in farm work until the dawn of the second millennium A.D. The first undisputed reference to horses used for ploughing is from ninth century Norway and it was likely uncommon in most of Europe until the eleventh and twelfth centuries (Langdon, 1986). Changes in this pattern were brought about through an unlikely connection, the warriors of medieval Europe.

Through the medieval period there is evidence for an increase in size of both cattle and horses. However, the development of the medieval war horse beginning in the early fourteenth century was a key factor in determining the future of both animals. The improvement of horses for warfare was fuelled by a need for larger and stronger animals. The spin-off of selection programs for large war horses was more powerful, faster animals available for agricultural draught work. The great Flanders and Flemish horse stock, the mounts of armor-clad warriors, were the forerunners of the modern draught breeds (Fraser, 1991). As the horse became more desirable for farm work, the oxen became more available for the production of beef. The English especially seized the opportunity to exploit this new availability of meat and from the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries "the roast beef of England was a national symbol" (Thomas, 1983). The growing demand and healthy market spawned a desire to produce larger beef cattle in a shorter period of time. It was not long before the methods of thoroughbred racehorse breeders, who were showing remarkable results on the racetracks by the beginning of the eighteenth century, were adopted by cattle producers (Ritvo, 1991).

Battle of the Breeds

Let each succeeding race employ your care,
Distinguishing which to slaughter, which to spare;
Mark well the lineage from purest make,
And from pure blood its just proportions take.

­ c.1840 inscription under a painting of the

Hereford Bull, "Cotmore" (Russell, 1947)

Cattle breeders in the middle of the eighteenth century set about to increase their profits through the "improvement" of their beef-producing livestock. Improvement meant animals that gained weight faster, matured sooner and grew larger. The tenets of Taylorism, production, specialization and efficiency, were imposed on animals (Noske, 1989). The pioneers of such improvement were Benjamin Tomkins, Richard Bakewell, and Charles Colling who began "systematic improvement" through selection in 1742, 1750 and 1784 respectively. It is important to remember that before this time there were no real breeds of cattle formally recognized. However, there were local variations in populations with regard to color and conformation. A breed came into being through intensive breeding programs driven by the selection of traits deemed desirable by the breeder. Much of the early breed establishment was wrought with rampant inbreeding. The following story illustrates the development of a new breed of domestic cattle.

Charles Colling, the owner of a small farm, became envious of the name, and money, that Richard Bakewell was beginning to make for himself through his improvement of what he called Longhorn Cattle. Colling visited Bakewell in 1784 and managed to pry loose some of Bakewell's secrets of success. He returned home and purchased a small bull that he named "Hubbach." Hubbach was "small, short-legged, yellowish-red and white with a good mossy coat" (Russell, 1947). Colling then bought four cows named "Duchess," "Cherry," "Daisy" and "Favourite" from four different farmers in the area. It is said that the owner of Favourite, John Maynard, initially asked too high a price for the cow and Colling refused to pay. However, Mrs. Colling was particularly fond of the cow and Mrs. Maynard urged her husband to lower the price. "These five animals were the foundation of the Shorthorn breed; and the descendants of Favourite became the best known" (Russell, 1947). (Similar processes spawned other beef breeds such as Herefords, Highlanders and Aberdeen Angus).

Obviously, with such a small herd at the outset, there was much inbreeding. One of Hubbach's sons sired a cow named Phoenix from Favourite. Phoenix was bred with another bull and birthed a bull named Favourite. The bull Favourite was bred back to his mother and sired a cow named Young Phoenix. Favourite was then bred with Young Phoenix (his daughter begot of his own mother) to sire a bull named Comet (1804-1815) the most famous bull of the nineteenth century. Favourite also sired the Ketton Ox, which became better known as the Durham Ox.

The "Durham Ox", 1802

The "Durham Ox", 1802

The Durham Ox was a huge, obese animal that captured the attention of the British public. The ox was purchased by a wealthy aristocrat and toured England and Scotland for six years in a specially designed carriage:

On a single day in London, where the Ox spent most of 1802, admission fees totalled 97 pounds....Combining massive presence and distinguished pedigree, the Durham ox exemplified the end toward which late eighteenth-century prize cattle breeding was directed; it was the type of bovine excellence (Ritvo, 1987).

Not only did people pay to see this beast, but in 1802 alone, more than 2000 people purchased a print of the squarish, roan ox. The ideal type for the early short-horn breed was established. The publicity that was accorded the Durham Ox (as well as another travelling obese Shorthorn of the same line, "The White Heifer that Travelled") helped the Collings to construct the foundation of the breed. The paintings and prints, although exaggerated in form, reinforced the color and marking pattern, horn shape and other such characteristics that were to make the breed recognizable (Briggs and Briggs, 1980; Plumb, 1904).

Bovids were vaulted into a symbol of English prestige. They reflected affluence, power, domination and the importance of good breeding. "They were intrinsically desirable objects of conspicuous consumption" (Ritvo, 1987). The public display in ample flesh as well as in painting suggests a metaphorical more than practical function. The cattle celebrated and reaffirmed the traditional rural order. Domination and control over nature exhibited by the ruling elite, reminded ordinary farmers that these beef barons were their natural leaders (Ritvo, 1987).

The demand for livestock portraiture blossomed in the first half of the nineteenth century. There was a steady flow of cattle prints produced between 1798 and 1845 (Russell, 1947). Wealthy cattle owners celebrated themselves through paintings of their creations, and cattle-watchers shared in the prestige vicariously through prints of the same. Rich owners commissioned some of the better artists of the day to portray their favorite beasts. Engravers then made less expensive prints available to the rest of society. Several artists, such as George Garrard, James Ward and Thomas Sidney "Cow" Cooper made a substantial living doing only cow portraits. Of this commercial art George Garrard commented:

It has always been the practice of polished nations to unite the elegant with the useful, the polite with the necessary arts, which thus serve mutually to illustrate and assist each other, and render employment at the same time and upon the same subject for the man of genius and the man of labour (in Boalch, 1958).

The "fat cattle portraits" depicted the brutal mass of their subjects. The animals were drawn broad-side and appeared massive. If human or other figures appeared in the paintings they were dwarfed. It was also the custom to partake in a little artistic licence, a touch of adiposal hyperbole. Bulging bovines with minuscule heads and broomstick legs were the order of the day. Some artists, however, refused to so indulge. Thomas Bewick describes how, in 1798, he was called to Barmpton to draw cattle and sheep for a subsequent wood engraving (quoted in Boalch, 1958).

After I had made my drawings from the fat sheep, I soon saw that they were not approved, but that they were to be made like certain paintings shown to me. I observed to my employer that the paintings bore no resemblance to the animals whose figures I had made my drawings from; and that I would not alter mine to suit the paintings that were shown to me; journey, as far as concerned these fat cattle makers, ended in nothing. I objected to put lumps of fat here and there where I could not see it, at least not in so exaggerated a way as on the painting before me; so "I got my labour for my trouble." Many of the animals were, during this rage for fat cattle, fed up to as great a weight and bulk as it was possible for feeding to make them; but this was not enough; they were to be figured monstrously fat before the owners of them could be pleased. Painters were found who could be quite subservient to this guidance, and nothing else would satisfy. Many of these paintings will mark the times, and, by the exaggerated productions of the artists, serve to be laughed at when the folly and the self-interested motives which gave birth to them are done away.

Cattle portraiture also helped to establish livestock as an aesthetically pleasing part of the landscape. The idyllic landscapes of the Victorian era were seldom without farm animals, and cattle, with their composed posture and benign expression, were among the favorites. The elite Victorians held a romantic view of a pure and innocent Arcadia. They were clinging to the vanishing ideals of country life as society became transformed from predominantly rural to urban; cattle became symbols of mythical rural tranquillity. Cattle also became established as aesthetically pleasing and picturesque in their own right. Both sentiments are expressed in the following passage:

Of all breeds of cattle the Highland is admitted to be the most picturesque. To see beasts of this description, however, to advantage, they should not be visited in the cultured pastures of the lowlands, or in the parks around "The stately Homes of England" where numbers of them find their way for a season to fulfil a twofold function, viz. to adorn the landscape, and at the same time to improve their condition. To see them at their best the spectator must betake himself to the north or west of Scotland, where the heather, brackens, and furze that are to be seen on every hand form a harmonious setting to the picturesque and striking figures of the animals (Reid, 1897).

Painting, then, both reflected the thought of the day and catalyzed a transformation to a different conception of a part of nature. Breeds of cattle became recognizable and valued as they captured the spirit of improvement, refinement and pedigree. As artifacts they ranked with the other mechanistic achievements of the nascent Industrial Revolution.

The Heights of Platonic Pure Form

Why paint a squirrel or a bird? Domestic animals have been part of our lives for thousands of years - they have made us what we are, and they are constantly being improved. That's what we should be celebrating.

­ Ross Butler, Canadian Livestock Artist

Tomkins, Bakewell and the Collings, with their methods of livestock improvement, established themselves as the "fathers of breed improvement" (Whitlock, 1977). The adoption of their standards of perfection was, at least in part, mediated through visual representation in the form of paintings and prints. They provided forms for other breeders to aspire to. It was obvious to anyone who saw the paintings, prints or animals themselves that formal breeds were a reality; they were there for all to see. However, livestock portraiture was not only important in the establishment of a breed, but in its continuance and "improvement." The rediscovery of Mendel's genetic experiments and the increasing demand for cattle products created a heightened sense of urgency for livestock "improvement" in the first decade of the twentieth century. By this time, the newly formalized breeds of Europe were well established in North America. The following Canadian example illustrates the role portraiture played in cattle breeding.

In 1930, a young artist and farmer from Norwich, Ontario was commissioned to do a portrait of the new world champion Jersey Cow from the nearby town of Brampton. The Canadian Jersey Cattle Club was so impressed by Ross Butler's painting that they approached him to create a "model type" for the breed. They wanted a painting of the perfect Jersey Cow. Butler accepted the assignment with relish but was soon faced with a perplexing question: What would this perfect animal look like?

  Butler purchased a Jersey heifer of outstanding pedigree named "Major Sea Girl." His plan was to pamper and study her to form a conception of perfect proportions. He began to take various measurements of Major Sea Girl in an attempt to reduce the notion of excellence to something approaching a mathematical formula. His discoveries astonished him:

...from the tip of her nose to her tailsetting, was exactly equal to her largest girth measurement...her height at the withers was equal to her height at the rump was also precisely the distance between her front and rear hooves...The length of the head was a unit measurement duplicated in 22 proportions of her body...from her throat to her dewlap, from dewlap to udder...the length of her neck to her withers, twice from her withers to her hipbones, from hip to pinbone and hip to stifle joint, from stifle to hock, hock to hoof and more (in Webster, 1985).

Butler concluded that the ideal Jersey cow was framed around a perfect square. His perfect animal was a series of boxes within a box, a notion he entitled "Butler's theory of relativity."

Butler extended his theory to other breeds of cattle and then other domestic animals. He quickly became established as the Canadian authority on what was called the True Type, Ideal Type or Standard of Perfection. He was granted one of the widest reaching commissions in Canadian art history when in 1937 he began work on 22 paintings depicting the perfect male and female of every major dairy breed, beef breed and draught horse. The completed series was sent to every school in Canada and

rare was the classroom that did not display a print or two on the wall above the blackboard, up there beside the carefully lettered Aa Bb Cc. Generations of daydreaming school children settled their eyes on the bony hips and soft contours of Butler's ideal jersey cow or the great feet and mighty haunches of his perfect Percheron stallion (Webster, 1985).

The ideal types became the targets at which livestock breeders aimed. Through the selection methods first developed in the eighteenth century, coupled with the new techniques of artificial insemination and embryo transplantation, the modern animal was "improved." It is not insignificant that Butler himself stowed his paintbrush for twenty-five years in favor of starting an artificial insemination business that, at its peak, employed sixteen technicians and bred more than 100 cows a day. Science and technology raced towards the artists' conception. The new technology allowed for rapid world-wide homogenization of a breed. The prize Holstein bull, Alsopdale Sunbeam II, died in 1979, but not before providing 214,293 first inseminations and leaving another 200,000 doses of semen in cryogenic storage (Klinkenborg, 1993).

Following thirty-five years of selective breeding, Canadian Holstein farms were graced with cattle remarkably similar to Butler's true type. In 1971 it was time to do the inevitable, Butler produced a new ideal type. The race began anew, only now with yet another weapon in the arsenal, genetic improvement. The modern Holstein "milk machine" produces an average of 13,000 pounds of milk per annum, triple the amount that their ancestors produced at the turn of the century (Rath, 1987). Today's standard of perfection even has teats in a form to better fit milking apparatus. The average "improved" Holstein is

allowed to live only 4 1/2 years...[i]f they lived any longer their legs would begin to give way, as would the sinews supporting their udders, which may weigh as much as a full-grown man....they're industrial animals, no more fuel efficient than a mammoth tractor, suited to the richness of an industrial economy (Klinkenborg, 1993).

Butler feels that his new ideal will be obsolete before 1995 (Webster, 1985).


The organizing category of "breed" is a social construct spawned from the ruling metaphor of animal-as-artifact. Tracing the historic thread of cattle domestication and the subsequent development of recognized breeds illustrates the culpability of graphic representation in the process of social construction. In essence, the animals have become what we wanted them to be. Ideal types are established and breeding programs strive to meet the standards. The standards, however, are a moving target that change often to reflect the ideals (fashions) of the day. They are the physical embodiment of our ideals, our creations of "improved" nature. They are simplified cultural artifacts that have come to replace the complexity and diversity of the natural world.


1. Please address correspondence to the author at Faculty of Environmental Studies, York University, 4700 Keele Street, North York, ON, Canada, M3J 1P3. This work was supported in part by a Natural Science and Engineering Research Council of Canada Doctoral Fellowship. I am grateful to Rebecca Raglon, the late dian marino, two anonymous reviewers and the editor for their encouragement and useful comments.


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