Cinematic Renaissance animation starring Ursula the bear

Cinematic Renaissance animation starring Ursula the bear

Dr Mark Stocker, Curator Historical International Art, explores a highly unusual set of etchings which depicts a day in the life of a huge, shaggy, brown bear. 

Meet Ursula…

Bear Plate 6
The set of the bears. Plate 6, by Marcus de Bye, 1664, after Marcus Gheeraerts I, 1559. British Museum (1847,0310.24)

In a pioneering set of prints, the Flemish artist Marcus Gheeraerts the Elder (c. 1520–1590) chronicled a day in the life of a huge, shaggy brown bear whose Latin name is Ursus arctos, hence my name for her: Ursula. They are based on keen observation of these animals and the 16 separate scenes comprise the closest that the 16th century got to cinematic animation.

Lost and Found: Gheeraerts and de Bye

Gheeraerts’s original prints are now regrettably lost, but they were still extant in 1664, over a century after they were made, when they were copied by Dutch artist Marcus de Bye (c. 1639–1688).

Te Papa is fortunate to own a near-complete holding of de Bye’s etchings, The set of the bears. They were acquired by the remarkable Lutheran bishop, liberal politician and refugee Ditlev Monrad, whose Old Master prints formed the basis of the Colonial Museum art collection in 1869.

Ditlev Gothard Monrad, 1865, by Pietro Krohn. Purchased 2011 with John Ilott Charitable Trust funds. Te Papa (2011-0042-1)

Life can be lonely

In this blog, I will highlight the frontispiece and five of the more interesting scenes in the set – the fact is that bears are solitary creatures and don’t really do much except hunt for things to eat.

Brown bear
Eurasian brown bear Ursus arctos. Wikimedia Commons

For whatever reason, people – and still more other animals – tend to give them a wide berth. Hence life can be unbearably lonely for poor Ursula! Little things like a colony of ants found under a stone can make her day. More on Ursula shortly.

Bear Baiting, by Henry Thomas Alken, 1820.

Bears in the 16th and 17th centuries

Apart from a few that probably still survived in the Ardennes Forest, there were no wild bears in Flanders (present-day Belgium) in Gheeraerts’s time; and certainly none near The Hague, where De Bye operated the following century. They were familiar, however, as captive animals: luckier ones were tame (or dancing) bears, but others were baited: tethered to a chain and set upon by dogs, with inevitably bloody consequences for both parties. This barbaric practice continued in many countries till the 19th century.

Bad Queen Bess

Sad to say, Elizabeth I took after her father, Henry VIII, as a bear baiting buff and (quite coincidentally) Gheerearts’s son Marcus the Younger would become one of her most celebrated portraitists. But that’s another story.

Elizabeth I
Queen Elizabeth I, by Marcus Gheerearts II, about 1592. Bequest of Harold Lee-Dillon, 17th Viscount Dillon, 1932. National Portrait Gallery, London (NPG 2561) (Wikimedia Commons)

Animal art

Northern European artists always had a wider repertoire of subjects than Italians, and it’s no coincidence that the Dutch, Flemish and French artists monopolised animal and game art in the centuries of Gheeraerts and de Bye.

Wild boar hunt, by Frans Snyders. Early-to-mid 17th century. Private Collection (Wikimedia Commons)

Indeed, de Bye made many animal prints based on drawings and paintings by his brilliant, short-lived contemporary Paulus Potter. Te Papa has several such prints in its collection, starring sheep, cattle, goats and lions, but The set of the bears is easily its most comprehensive holding in the genre.

Frontispiece Bears
The set of the bears. Frontispiece, 1664, by Marcus de Bye, after Marcus Gheeraerts I, 1559. Gift of Bishop Monrad, 1869. Te Papa (1869-0001-62)

Armorial bearings

Ursula looks for all the world like a supporting bear on a coat-of-arms as she leans against the ruined antique tablet that forms the frontispiece to the set. In Latin script and Roman numerals, we are pompously yet humorously introduced to our two artists and the dates of their respective series, Gheerearts (1559) and de Bye (1664).

A good feast

Brown bears have highly varied diets, and are less carnivorous than we think. Their diet ranges from grass, berries and bulbs to ants, fish (their American cousins, especially, are accomplished anglers) and ungulates (hoofed mammals), both wild and domestic.

Bears Plate 3
The set of the bears. Plate 3, 1664, by Marcus de Bye, after Marcus Gheeraerts I, 1559. Gift of Bishop Monrad, 1869. Te Papa (1869-0001-64)

In this plate, Ursula appears to have found a hunk of carrion over which she squats and gnaws away. This is nature ‘red in tooth and claw’ and is not, I’m afraid, particularly vegetarian-friendly.

A word to learned antiquarians

Note the fragment of a classical frieze beside Ursula in this plate. It’s included for several reasons. Firstly, I think Gheeraerts (and de Bye) were keen to be regarded not as lower-class animal artists, but as men of classical learning.

Bears plate 13
The set of the bears. Plate 13, 1664, by Marcus de Bye, after Marcus Gheeraerts I, 1559. Gift of Bishop Monrad, 1869. Te Papa (1869-0001-73)

Antiquity was very modish in these late Renaissance times. But at a deeper level, the artists are commenting on the rise and fall of civilisations. Clearly the landscape depicted in these prints once had fine architecture in its vicinity, but now it has reverted to a primeval state, where bears rule.

A tantalising find

In this plate, an animated Ursula has seen something – possibly a snake, lizard or other potential prey, obviously near the foreground plant. Or maybe it’s just some fungi.

Bears plate 4
The set of the bears. Plate 4, 1664, by Marcus de Bye, after Marcus Gheeraerts I. Gift of Bishop Monrad, 1869. Te Papa (1869-0001-65)

We will remain tantalised, and the secret remains hers. In this image, almost a bear portrait, the dense fur on Ursula’s shoulder is particularly exaggerated. Professor Charles T. Robbins, of the Bear Center at Washington State University, calls the prints ‘a bit stylized’ but commends de Bye for being ‘as accurate as you could expect for the time’.

Getting our bearings

I asked Professor Robins about the picturesque landscape setting. He believes it was artistic imagination that prevailed rather than any particular knowledge of bear country. But it would be wrong to assume – from today’s threatened bear population – that such scenes should be set in a forest. If anything, bears prefer grasslands to dense forests, and in the Middle East they even live in desert-edge habitats. The presence of a distant goatherd and his small flock in one print in the series certainly indicates these are grasslands.

This is the life…

Bears plate 7
The set of the bears. Plate 7, 1664, by Marcus de Bye, after Marcus Gheeraerts I, 1559. Gift of Bishop Monrad, 1869. Te Papa (1869-0001-67)

In three prints, Ursula is depicted eating from a ceramic bowl. Its origins remain obscure. Was it dropped by a startled shepherd or goatherd at the sight of her? This again must remain unanswered. The key thing is that she’s now its sole owner, and contentedly feeds from it, holding the bowl between her paws.


Well, another day has gone by for Ursula and in the last print in The set of the bears, she is fast asleep.

Bears plate 16
The set of the bears. Plate 16, 1664, by Marcus de Bye, after Marcus Gheeraerts I, 1559. Gift of Bishop Monrad, 1869. Te Papa (1869-0001-76)

Thank you for bearing with me on this day in her life. And if, by any chance, you find Ursula dead or alive in plate 6 from the set – our one missing print – a bear-hug awaits you from the Curator, Historical International Art and the rest of our team!

I am grateful to Professor Charles T. Robbins, Bear Center, Washington State University, for promptly and helpfully answering my questions.
See the entire Set of the bears, on Collections Online


  1. Enjoyed reading your analysis of The Set of Bears. Thank you Mark. Well done. I also liked the print of Ursula with the ceramic bowl and your interpretation that a lone walker was no match for a hungry bear.

    1. Thank you Anne. On reflection, my friend Kate’s suggestion that it was based on the original artist studying a bear in captivity seems highly likely, but my interpretation is more colourful!

  2. Lovely images and a contented bear in the end. A reminder that at least some forms of cruelty to animals are on the wane and a lovely whimsical post to encourage greater humanity in working towards greater care of our hairy friends!

    1. Author

      Thank you Jane. While I didn’t write the blog with this as my prime intention, if it encourages such thoughts, I’m very pleased!

  3. What a very user friendly Dr.Stocker Blog this is. Hugely appreciated. ‘As accurate as you could expect for the time'(Professor Robbins) – The Durer Rhinoceros and chronologically similar ‘animal ark’ portrayals show an anatomical disrespect for the subjects ( usually over-inflated or deflated ) but the grand essence and the story-telling is there I much appreciate that.It is well worth while going through to the on line ‘set of bears’ collection. Is the subject of plate 6 known? As homage, I would quite like to have a crack at it. Oh – one thing – image sizes are not mentioned.

    1. Author

      Morena Barry, Many thanks for your feedback. Your comment about artists’ renditions of their subjects is so right. By and large artists don’t ‘do’ the real and never have! The glowing exceptions are the early hard-edged Pre-Raphaelites, as in Millais’s Christ in the House of His Parents and by attempting the real they look like they’re on LSD! I discreetly included Plate 6 (thank you British Museum for your fabulous print collection) at the very start of the blog, where Ursula is standing somewhat awkwardly but doing nothing untoward: in fact she’s a remarkably well behaved bear in all the plates! Image sizes – a good point, we don’t normally include this in our caption credits, but the Bears all measure approximately 120mm x 150mm.

  4. Brilliant!

    I love this animated use of the collections, a happy, informative, and delightful interface between collections and technological access.

    Is it possible that the bear that Gheeraerts I was observing was a semi-tame bear in a zoo-type place, hence the hunk of meat – carrion – and the dish or water bowl?

    Can we know more about Bishop Monrad ?

    1. Author

      Thank you Kate! I think your ‘banal’ explanation of the bowl makes perfect sense and is very likely true. That’s certainly where Gheeraerts would have studied the bear in the first place. My more romantic version is that some working dogs and their shepherd were scared away by Ursula who wanted that bowl – and its contents! Bishop Monrad was a remarkable man, and one of New Zealand’s very first refugees, a source of pride to our liberal democracy. Here’s the Wikipedia link:
      And here is one of Te Papa’s most popular recent blogs where I discuss him:

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