These Hilarious GIFs Bring Art History to Life

Alexxa Gotthardt
Jun 18, 2018 2:20PM

Henry Stafford, Castle Howard Shorthorns, animated by Matthias Brown. Courtesy of Doncaster Museum and Art Gallery and Art UK.

Have you ever seen a cow twerk?

Neither had I—until last week, when a group of unconventional GIFs landed in my inbox. All of them were based on images of traditional landscapes, seascapes, and portraits from 18th and 19th centuries. Most of them were also really funny—the kind of thing I immediately shared with fellow art history nerds, the sort of people I knew would appreciate watching two stoic cows, painted in the mid-1800s, break into a booty dance.

The twerking cow GIF is the work of artist and animator Matthias Brown. It’s also one of a growing number of memes solicited by Art UK, a philanthropic organization that digitizes artworks in museum collections in the United Kingdom. The organization’s goal is to make art more accessible; many of the paintings its members digitize are housed in remote museums or relegated to storage, and therefore are rarely seen by the public.

“We want more people to interact with art,” Ferren Gipson, Art UK’s social media marketer, told me. “And we’re always trying to think of new ways to enhance that mission.”

Unknown artist, Frances Wansford, 1608, animated by Matthias Brown. Courtesy of Doncaster Museum Service and Art UK.

Unknown artist, Audrey Wimble, animated by Matthias Brown. Courtesy of Lewes Town Council and Art UK.


Their newest effort comes in the form of GIFs, those hyper-shareable, often humorous moving images that shimmy and flicker across the internet, enhancing—or distracting from—our online conversations. At their best, GIFs express ideas or emotions that a sentence or emoji might not be able to. My own favorites riff on popular images, and if they have a goal, it’s laughter.

A large portion of the images of paintings in Art UK’s database hold Creative Commons licenses, which means they can be shared and, in some cases, remixed by anyone who pleases (as long as they include the proper credit line). Gipson explained that these images seemed ripe for GIF-making. How fun would it be, she thought, to have contemporary creatives interpret and animate these images of age-old artworks?

Earlier this week, Art UK launched a call for submissions, encouraging anyone with basic animation skills to transform a group of images in their database into GIFs. The project was promoted with a collection of 12 GIFs, five of which Art UK commissioned from Brown. Some are splashy, endowing 19th-century subjects with effusive hand gestures and dramatic eye-rolls. Others are more subtle. In one Impressionist seascape, water ripples ever so slightly.

Edward John Cobbett, Child with Kitten. Courtesy of Worcester City Museums and Art UK.

Joseph Highmore, William Wrightson, animated by Matthias Brown. Courtesy of Doncaster Museum Service and Art UK.

Over time, Gipson and her colleagues hope to build an extensive art GIF database. So far, it seems like they’ll be able to make good on their goal. According to Ferren, just a few days after the launch, Art UK’s inaugural group of GIFs had already collectively received around 1.1 million views via the GIF-sharing platform GIPHY, and submissions have been streaming in.

But what exactly was it about these GIFs that made them such viral gold? I asked Ari Spool, GIPHY’s community operations manager and co-curator, to unpack the question. First off, she pointed to a GIF’s ability to express emotions. “GIFs made from classic paintings are no different—an emotion is conveyed in the original artwork, and then often another, sometimes more irreverent one, is layered on based on the GIF artists’ interpretation,” she explained. Of course, I can’t help but think of Brown’s irreverent cows.

“We love to share these GIFs because of the beauty of the painting but also because of the humor. It’s a two-for-one deal,” she added.

Spool also noted that GIFs can enhance the original artwork. “With a subtle animation of a boat rocking in the water, we can perhaps more thoroughly envision ourselves in the scene depicted in the painting,” she explained. “When the cat wags its tail, we can sympathize, as we have held a cat wagging its tail. These animations can bring us closer to the originals.”

Some art purists might beg to differ, arguing that these GIFs misconstrue an artist’s intention, or make light of the original work. One can imagine a die-hard fan of 18th-century painting scoffing at a remixed portrait of William Wrightson, a wealthy British Parliamentarian; his GIF version is stuck in an endless loop of hand-flipping, eye-rolling, and eyebrow-raising. The animation brings spunk and personality to this stiff, powder-wigged statesman. But it also transforms the original artwork in ways that its creator certainly would never have anticipated.

Art UK and GIPHY don’t see a problem with this. Instead, they see the creation of GIFs based on artworks as a means to more deeply engage with art—and inspire creativity, too. “Art is a living thing that should be open to interpretation and engaged with in different ways, seen in different contexts and from different angles,” said Gipson.

Spool agreed. “Artworks can exist in many different spheres at once. If artists are inspired to work in tandem with classics, it would be wrong to deny the opportunity for exposure of those paintings to new audiences,” she explained. “You never know—perhaps the next classic painter starts out as a GIF artist!”

Alexxa Gotthardt