Animals have been depicted in art all the way back to prehistoric times. In the Stone Age, hunters and gatherers lived in caves that had drawings on the walls. In fact, drawings of bison, deer, horses, cattle and wild boars can be seen in remote recesses of caves all over the world. Archaeologists speculate that artists drew them to guarantee a successful hunt.

Cave paintings in Spain and France record the importance of animals in the life of mankind.

And that theme is underscored in the “Animal Menagerie” exhibit showing on the walls of the fourth floor of the Portland Museum of Art. Drawn primarily from the museum’s permanent collection, the exhibit features more than 25 works of art done by artists from the mid-1800s to today.

“Animal Menagerie” is especially appealing to children because of the subject matter, but the pieces reflect a sophisticated use of medium as each artist explores his or her specific form of creativity.

A huge wood relief wall mural titled “Animal Farm,” by Bernard Langlais, takes your breath away. Larger-than-life animals emerge from the hand-carved work on the wall and seem to come alive in three dimension. Two other wooden sculptures by Langlais, titled “Steer” and “Cow,” stand in the middle of the gallery and complement the work hanging on the wall.

Born in Old Town in 1921, Langlais loved to draw and make things with his hands as a child. After high-school graduation, he joined the U.S. Navy and later studied at the Cocoran School of Art in Washington, D.C. In 1949, he attended the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture and returned there for three years.

Skowhegan is where he got his first break in the art world. The town commissioned him to do a sculpture. Over two years, he created a large wooden Indian in honor of those who originally settled Skowhegan, the Indian word meaning “place to watch.” The sculpture was erected in the center of town in 1969.

Langlais married Helen Friend of Skowhegan, and the couple moved to Cushing, where he carved magnificent wooden sculptures until his death at age 56 in 1977. His works are in museums across the state and on many college campuses throughout Maine.

As visitors get off the elevator on the fourth floor of the PMA, they are greeted by a work titled “Disembarkation” – one of the most beautiful works in the exhibit. An oil on canvas, it was created in 1976 by Dahlov Ipcar, a well-known Maine artist, illustrator and author of more than 30 children’s books.

Many of her art works focus on animals from her own imagination as well as from life experiences on her farm on Georgetown Island.

Ipcar’s sophisticated use of perspective, such as overlapping figures in intricate designs on her canvases, creates a feeling of activity in all her works, a major characteristic of her style.

At age 90, Ipcar still paints in her studio every morning.

Two of Ipcar’s children’s books were reissued by the Islandport Press of New Gloucester this year: “The Little Fisherman,” written by Margaret Wise Brown in 1945 and the first children’s book Ipcar illustrated; and “My Wonderful Christmas Tree,” a counting book. The PMA will host a book signing from 1 to 3 p.m. Dec. 14.

“Bright Barnyard,” an oil painting, and a children’s book by Ipcar are both on display as well as Ipcar’s children’s book, “The Cat at Night.”

Other well-known works in the “Animal Menagerie” exhibit include “Hare and Tortoise,” an oil painting by Marguerite Zorach; and “Tookie,” a drawing by William Zorach – parents of Ipcar.

Other notable works: Will Barnet’s “Winter Sky,” an oil painting showing silhouettes of solitary women and crows on the ground; Edward Hicks’ “Peaceable Kingdom,” an oil painting showing biblical passages around its border with a lamb, child, leopard and lion at its center; Roger Winter’s “Snow Moon,” an oil painting depicting a fox pouncing on prey in midair; and Mildred Giddings Burrage’s “Souper a Deux,” an oil painting depicting a child eating in a garden.

However, it is Ipcar’s artwork that captures the eye because it seems to radiate life. In the center of the exhibit hang several of her cloth sculptures – one titled “Cream and Blue Fish” and the other “Okapi.”

Be sure to note a subtle part of the exhibit hanging in the small gallery on the first floor in front of the elevators. Here you will see early graphics created by political cartoonist Clifford Berryman, who created an illustration for the Washington Post in 1902 of Theodore Roosevelt refusing to shoot a bear cub. Roosevelt was an early environmentalist and wildlife champion.

From that drawing evolved a stuffed toy bear cub that became known as a Teddy Bear, after Theodore Roosevelt. Teddy bears are still a favorite among children.

“Animal Menagerie” is an exhibit for the whole family. It comes down Nov. 9.

The museum at Seven Congress Square is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday; and 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday. Admission is $10 for adults, $8 for seniors and students with ID, $4 for youths ages 6-17 and free for children under 6. Admission is free from 5 to 9 p.m. Friday. For more information, call 775-6148.

Pat Davidson Reef has a master’s degree in education and has taught art history at Catherine McAuley High School in Portland. She has written two children’s books, “Dahlov Ipcar, Artist,” and “Bernard Langlais, Sculptor.” She teaches children’s literature for teacher recertification for the American Institute for Creative Education.

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