Animal stars of the Western art canon go on show in Paris from Wednesday, from the first naturalist paintings to Darwinist studies of the animal realm, and modern-day works on biodiversity under threat.
Dating from the Renaissance to the 21st century, 120 paintings, sculptures, bronzes and engravings -- all with animals as their exclusive subjects -- are brought together for the show dubbed "Animal Beauty", at Paris' Grand Palais.
"We chose only works where the animals are shown for their own sake, aside from any human presence," explained Emmanuelle Heran, curator of the show that stands "at the crossroads between art history, biology and zoology".
After a scene-setting Noah's Ark, from around 1620, themed sections retrace 16th- and 17th-century efforts to catalogue the animal world, through naturalist art or the logging of specimens in zoology handbooks or curiosity cabinets.
For these Europeans, the discovery of the New World and its host of exotic animals created "a sense of a boundless nature", Heran said, pointing at one anonymous oil from 1619 depicting 71 colourful species of bird.
The show recalls how, until fairly recently, exotic animals were the preserve of a tiny elite -- exchanged as diplomatic gifts and kept in royal menageries, to which the great painters of the day were granted coveted access.
Gems from the 19th century include a cartoon-like painting of two cats fighting on a roof, by the Spanish master Francisco Goya, or an 1831 bronze by Frenchman Antoine Louis Barye of a tiger and crocodile locked in a Darwinian battle for survival.
Old masters, like a Rembrandt sketch of an elephant, rub shoulders with contemporary works, like a poodle in sculpted wood by the US artist Jeff Koons, all magnificent manicured curls, reclining on a black pedestal.
As the show shifts to the modern era, comes a growing awareness "that nature is not inexhaustible", said Heran, who added "endangered" tags to the names of the many depicted species that are threatened with extinction.
A life-sized white polar bear, moulded from stylised plaster in 1928 or 29 by the French sculptor Francois Pompon, fills the last room.
The monumental creature stands alongside a 1981 painting by France's Gilles Aillaud, of a polar bear in a zoo -- slumped on a fake iceshelf -- "as a way of asking what future is left for these great animals", Heran said.