Crocodiles

Oceanic art curator Eric Kjellgren dissects the myths and urban legends associated with the crocodile throughout the ages.

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New York has its own crocodilian mythology. They were supposed to lose all the pigmentation in their skin and become essentially albino crocodiles, ten feet long, surviving on rats, garbage, and the occasional sewer worker.

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  • Eric Kjellgren
    1280852
  • Jardin des Plantes  |  1898–1900  |  Eugène Atget (French)  |  Albumen silver print from glass negative  |  Gilman Collection, Museum Purchase, 2005 (2005.100.542)
    12671024
  • [Five 35mm Film Frames on Uncut Roll of Roadside Stand Selling Shells and Advertising Live Alligators, Tarpon Springs, Florida]  |  December 1941  |  Walker Evans (American)  |  Film negative  |  Walker Evans Archive, 1994 (1994.253.462.1–5)
    1280897
  • Mi-gyaung  |  late 19th century  |  Myanmar (formerly Burma)  |  The Crosby Brown Collection of Musical Instruments, 1889 (89.4.1473)
    1280331
  • Canoe Prow  |  19th–early 20th century  |  Iatmul people; Papua New Guinea, Mindimbit village, Middle Sepik River  |  Wood, cowrie shells  |  The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Purchase, Nelson A. Rockefeller Gift, 1955 (1978.412.705)
    1280495
  • Sobek as a crocodile  |  Early Ptolemaic Period (ca. 304–247 b.c.)  |  Egyptian  |  Faience  |  Gift of Norbert Schimmel Trust, 1989 (1989.281.96)
    1280795
  • Painting from a Ceremonial House Ceiling  |  1970  |  Numei, Amachi Kalaba  |  Sago palm spathe, paint  |  The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Purchase, Mrs. Gertrud A. Mellon Gift, and Mr. and Mrs. Alan Brandt Gift in memory of Jacob J. Brandt, 1974 (1978.412.1658)
    4671024
  • Crocodile Reading  |  ca. 1891  |  Oliver Herford (American)  |  Graphite, brush, and India ink  |  Gift of Ethel Watts Grant, 1939 (39.41.8)
    8091024
  • Double Crocodile Pendant  |  8th–10th century  |  Panama; Macaracas  |  Gold, quartz  |  The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Bequest of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1979 (1979.206.733)
    1280977
  • America  |  18th century  |  Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo (Italian)  |  Fresco, transferred to canvas  |  Bequest of Grace Rainey Rogers, 1943 (43.85.20)
    1280978
  • America  |  18th century  |  Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo (Italian)  |  Fresco, transferred to canvas  |  Bequest of Grace Rainey Rogers, 1943 (43.85.20)
    12081024
  • A Stag Lying Down (on a base): The Head of a Crocodile  |  after 1770  |  Domenico Tiepolo (Italian)  |  Pen and brown ink, brown wash, over traces of black chalk  |  Robert Lehman Collection, 1975 (1975.1.521)
    7151024
  • A Stag Lying Down (on a base): The Head of a Crocodile  |  After 1770  |  Domenico Tiepolo (Italian)  |  Pen and brown ink, brown wash, over traces of black chalk  |  Robert Lehman Collection, 1975 (1975.1.521)
    1280910
  • Crocodile Rattle  |  8th century  |  Maya  |  Ceramic  |  The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Bequest of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1979 (1979.206.1143)
    1280696
  • Alligators  |  1917  |  John Singer Sargent (American)  |  Watercolor, graphite, and wax crayon on white wove paper  |  Gift of Mrs. Francis Ormond, 1950 (50.130.63)
    1280964
  • Alligators  |  1917  |  John Singer Sargent (American)  |  Watercolor, graphite, and wax crayon on white wove paper  |  Gift of Mrs. Francis Ormond, 1950 (50.130.63)
    1280870
  • Satchel  |  first quarter 20th century  |  American  |  Leather, metal  |  Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Gift of James J. Freeman, 1963 (2009.300.1547)
    1280936
  • Water Drum  |  19th–early 20th century  |  Papua New Guinea, Middle Sepik region, Mindimbit village, Iatmul people  |  Wood, fiber  |  The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Bequest of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1979 (1979.206.1627)
    4701024
  • [Crocodile]  |  1978  |  Joan Fontcuberta (Spanish)  |  Gelatin silver print  |  Gift of the artist, 1978 (1978.610.1)
    1280846
  • Crocodile statue  |  Ptolemaic or Roman Period, 304 b.c.–364 a.d.  |  Italy, Southern Europe, Rome  |  Granite  |  Purchase, The Bernard and Audrey Aronson Charitable Trust Gift, in memory of her beloved husband, Bernard Arnonson, 1992 (1992.13)
    1280799
  • Masquerade Element: Crocodile Head (Omama)  |  17th–19th century  |  Yoruba peoples, Owo group  |  Nigeria  |  Ivory, wood or coconut shell inlay  |  Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Klaus G. Perls, 1991 (1991.17.125)
    6831024
  • A crocodile rising from the water to take a piece of meat tied to a string during a crocodile feeding, Adelaide River, Northern Territory, Australia.  |  Photo: Eric Kjellgren
    1280764
  • A large crocodile surfacing, Adelaide River, Northern Territory, Australia.  |  Photo: Eric Kjellgren
    1280853
  • Eric Kjellgren
    1280852
  • My name is Eric Kjellgren and I'm the curator of Oceanic art here at the Metropolitan, and I'm gonna talk today about crocodiles.

  • When I was a young child, I only got a chance to see alligators and crocodiles in zoos. My first chance to see them in the wild came when we did this traditional

  • family vacation to Florida, and there was a lake that seemed to be full of old logs. I thought, you know, "gosh I wish I

  • could see an alligator." And then as I stood at the shore, luckily not very close to it, I realized that every one of those was actually an alligator.

  • I was both thrilled and a little frightened of this, and I think that actually is something that endures with me even today. New York has its own

  • crocodilian mythology about alligators living in the sewers. And in some stories, they were supposed to lose all the

  • pigmentation in their skin and become essentially albino crocodiles, ten feet long, surviving on rats, garbage, and the occasional sewer worker. Fortunately

  • according to herpetologists, there doesn't seem to be much basis in fact for this, but there was actually a number of years ago

  • somebody released a caiman into the Harlem Meer, not very far from the Museum now.

  • You often see crocodiles in these allegorical representations associated either with America, in which case you're seeing alligators, or with Africa, in which case you're seeing crocodiles. This includes America personified as this woman with this great flowing headdress

  • but just behind her right leg you can see this alligator peeking out. Most of the images before the nineteenth century

  • are drawn either from stuffed specimens or from other illustrations.

  • This poor crocodile looks like it was among the most shriveled-up, dried-out natural history specimens in the local museum or noble's collection.

  • Crocodilians have a very sort of distinctive body shape. It's at once sort of, you know, beautifully flowing sinuous curves, but also a ruggedness.

  • This watercolor by John Singer Sargent impresses me by the way he's able to render

  • the shape of an alligator just with a sort of almost amorphous blob of paint.

  • This crocodile bag actually reminds me very much of my grandmother, who was not a fan of crocodiles or alligators. And I remember watching television with her once about alligators, which of course I thought was fascinating. She said, "Well, you know, I wouldn't mind at all if these things went extinct 'cause I think they're nasty creatures."

  • These were used as part of an initiation ceremony. You bring the instrument down vertically on the water, and this makes a sound sort of like, "kabooyzhee, kabooyzhee." And that noise was said to be the noise of young men being swallowed by this giant crocodile.

  • If I was at the zoo and I snapped that photograph on my digital camera, I'd probably just hit the delete key 'cause I didn't get the head, and yet, here I think it is in fact one of the best crocodiles images that I've seen. You see their role as a dangerous, hidden thing.

  • I've tried to convert some people to my fascination with crocodiles, and actually somewhat succeeded with my wife.

  • And we actually went on our honeymoon in Australia and took a crocodile watching trip.

  • They tap things on the water to attract the crocodiles and feed them meat so they'll come out to the boat. And this is all very well because it let's you see the crocodiles, but it also reminds you that these crocodiles associate the boat with food, so that it's wise not to fall out of it if you can avoid it.

  • Part of the whole sort of mystique and attraction of crocodiles is the fact that they're also dangerous creatures. You could potentially be eaten, not a part

  • I'd really like to experience.

  • 2005.100.542
    Jardin des Plantes, 1898–1900, Eugène Atget (French), Albumen silver print from glass negative Gilman Collection, Museum Purchase, 2005 (2005.100.542)
  • 1994.253.462.1-5
    [Five 35mm Film Frames on Uncut Roll of Roadside Stand Selling Shells and Advertising Live Alligators, Tarpon Springs, Florida], December 1941, Walker Evans (American), Film negative Walker Evans Archive, 1994 (1994.253.462.1–5)
  • 89.4.1473
    Mi-gyaung, late 19th century, Myanmar (formerly Burma) The Crosby Brown Collection of Musical Instruments, 1889 (89.4.1473)
  • 1978.412.705
    Canoe Prow, 19th–early 20th century, Iatmul people; Papua New Guinea, Mindimbit village, Middle Sepik River, Wood, cowrie shells The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Purchase, Nelson A. Rockefeller Gift, 1955 (1978.412.705)
  • 1989.281.96
    Sobek as a crocodile, Early Ptolemaic Period (ca. 304–247 b.c.), Egyptian, Faience Gift of Norbert Schimmel Trust, 1989 (1989.281.96)
  • 1978.412.1658
    Painting from a Ceremonial House Ceiling, 1970, Numei, Amachi Kalaba, Sago palm spathe, paint The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Purchase, Mrs. Gertrud A. Mellon Gift, and Mr. and Mrs. Alan Brandt Gift in memory of Jacob J. Brandt, 1974 (1978.412.1658)
  • 39.41.8
    Crocodile Reading, ca. 1891, Oliver Herford (American), Graphite, brush, and India ink Gift of Ethel Watts Grant, 1939 (39.41.8)
  • 1979.206.733
    Double Crocodile Pendant, 8th–10th century, Panama; Macaracas, Gold, quartz The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Bequest of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1979 (1979.206.733)
  • 43.85.20
    America, 18th century, Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo (Italian), Fresco, transferred to canvas Bequest of Grace Rainey Rogers, 1943 (43.85.20)
  • 1975.1.521
    A Stag Lying Down (on a base): The Head of a Crocodile, after 1770, Domenico Tiepolo (Italian), Pen and brown ink, brown wash, over traces of black chalk Robert Lehman Collection, 1975 (1975.1.521)
  • 1979.206.1143
    Crocodile Rattle, 8th century, Maya, Ceramic The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Bequest of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1979 (1979.206.1143)
  • 50.130.63
    Alligators, 1917, John Singer Sargent (American), Watercolor, graphite, and wax crayon on white wove paper Gift of Mrs. Francis Ormond, 1950 (50.130.63)
  • 2009.300.1547
    Satchel, first quarter 20th century, American, Leather, metal Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Gift of James J. Freeman, 1963 (2009.300.1547)
  • 1979.206.1627
    Water Drum, 19th–early 20th century, Papua New Guinea, Middle Sepik region, Mindimbit village, Iatmul people, Wood, fiber The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Bequest of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1979 (1979.206.1627)
  • 1978.610.1
    [Crocodile], 1978, Joan Fontcuberta (Spanish), Gelatin silver print Gift of the artist, 1978 (1978.610.1)
  • 1992.13
    Crocodile statue, Ptolemaic or Roman Period, 304 b.c.–364 a.d., Italy, Southern Europe, Rome, Granite Purchase, The Bernard and Audrey Aronson Charitable Trust Gift, in memory of her beloved husband, Bernard Arnonson, 1992 (1992.13)
  • 1991.17.125
    Masquerade Element: Crocodile Head (Omama), 17th–19th century, Yoruba peoples, Owo group, Nigeria, Ivory, wood or coconut shell inlay Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Klaus G. Perls, 1991 (1991.17.125)
  • Jardin des Plantes, 1898–1900, Eugène Atget (French), Albumen silver print from glass negative Gilman Collection, Museum Purchase, 2005 (2005.100.542)
    [Five 35mm Film Frames on Uncut Roll of Roadside Stand Selling Shells and Advertising Live Alligators, Tarpon Springs, Florida], December 1941, Walker Evans (American), Film negative Walker Evans Archive, 1994 (1994.253.462.1–5)
    Mi-gyaung, late 19th century, Myanmar (formerly Burma) The Crosby Brown Collection of Musical Instruments, 1889 (89.4.1473)
    Canoe Prow, 19th–early 20th century, Iatmul people; Papua New Guinea, Mindimbit village, Middle Sepik River, Wood, cowrie shells The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Purchase, Nelson A. Rockefeller Gift, 1955 (1978.412.705)
    Sobek as a crocodile, Early Ptolemaic Period (ca. 304–247 b.c.), Egyptian, Faience Gift of Norbert Schimmel Trust, 1989 (1989.281.96)
    Painting from a Ceremonial House Ceiling, 1970, Numei, Amachi Kalaba, Sago palm spathe, paint The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Purchase, Mrs. Gertrud A. Mellon Gift, and Mr. and Mrs. Alan Brandt Gift in memory of Jacob J. Brandt, 1974 (1978.412.1658)
    Crocodile Reading, ca. 1891, Oliver Herford (American), Graphite, brush, and India ink Gift of Ethel Watts Grant, 1939 (39.41.8)
    Double Crocodile Pendant, 8th–10th century, Panama; Macaracas, Gold, quartz The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Bequest of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1979 (1979.206.733)
    America, 18th century, Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo (Italian), Fresco, transferred to canvas Bequest of Grace Rainey Rogers, 1943 (43.85.20)
    A Stag Lying Down (on a base): The Head of a Crocodile, after 1770, Domenico Tiepolo (Italian), Pen and brown ink, brown wash, over traces of black chalk Robert Lehman Collection, 1975 (1975.1.521)
    Crocodile Rattle, 8th century, Maya, Ceramic The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Bequest of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1979 (1979.206.1143)
    Alligators, 1917, John Singer Sargent (American), Watercolor, graphite, and wax crayon on white wove paper Gift of Mrs. Francis Ormond, 1950 (50.130.63)
    Satchel, first quarter 20th century, American, Leather, metal Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Gift of James J. Freeman, 1963 (2009.300.1547)
    Water Drum, 19th–early 20th century, Papua New Guinea, Middle Sepik region, Mindimbit village, Iatmul people, Wood, fiber The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Bequest of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1979 (1979.206.1627)
    [Crocodile], 1978, Joan Fontcuberta (Spanish), Gelatin silver print Gift of the artist, 1978 (1978.610.1)
    Crocodile statue, Ptolemaic or Roman Period, 304 b.c.–364 a.d., Italy, Southern Europe, Rome, Granite Purchase, The Bernard and Audrey Aronson Charitable Trust Gift, in memory of her beloved husband, Bernard Arnonson, 1992 (1992.13)
    Masquerade Element: Crocodile Head (Omama), 17th–19th century, Yoruba peoples, Owo group, Nigeria, Ivory, wood or coconut shell inlay Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Klaus G. Perls, 1991 (1991.17.125)
    8000–2000 B.C.
    2000–1000 B.C.
    1000 B.C.–1 A.D.
    1–500 A.D.
    500–1000 A.D.
    1000–1400 A.D.
    1400–1600 A.D.
    1600–1800 A.D.
    1800–1900 A.D.
    1900–Present

    Works of art in order of appearance

    Last Updated: August 19, 2013. Not all works of art in the Museum's collection may be on view on a particular day. For the most accurate location information, please check this page on the day of your visit.

    Jardin des Plantes
    1898–1900
    Eugène Atget (French)
    Albumen silver print from glass negative
    Gilman Collection, Museum Purchase, 2005 (2005.100.542)
    Not on view
    PhotographsSecond Floor
    [Five 35mm Film Frames on Uncut Roll of Roadside Stand Selling Shells and Advertising Live Alligators, Tarpon Springs, Florida]
    December 1941
    Walker Evans (American)
    Film negative
    Walker Evans Archive, 1994 (1994.253.462.1–5)
    Not on view
    PhotographsSecond Floor
    Mi-gyaung
    late 19th century
    Myanmar (formerly Burma)
    The Crosby Brown Collection of Musical Instruments, 1889 (89.4.1473)
    On view: Gallery 681
    Musical InstrumentsSecond Floor
    Canoe Prow
    19th–early 20th century
    Iatmul people; Papua New Guinea, Mindimbit village, Middle Sepik River
    Wood, cowrie shells
    The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Purchase, Nelson A. Rockefeller Gift, 1955 (1978.412.705)
    On view: Gallery 354
    Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the AmericasFirst Floor
    Sobek as a crocodile
    Early Ptolemaic Period (ca. 304–247 b.c.)
    Egyptian
    Faience
    Gift of Norbert Schimmel Trust, 1989 (1989.281.96)
    On view: Gallery 134
    Egyptian ArtFirst Floor
    Painting from a Ceremonial House Ceiling
    1970
    Numei, Amachi Kalaba
    Sago palm spathe, paint
    The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Purchase, Mrs. Gertrud A. Mellon Gift, and Mr. and Mrs. Alan Brandt Gift in memory of Jacob J. Brandt, 1974 (1978.412.1658)
    On view: Gallery 354
    Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the AmericasFirst Floor
    Crocodile Reading
    ca. 1891
    Oliver Herford (American)
    Graphite, brush, and India ink
    Gift of Ethel Watts Grant, 1939 (39.41.8)
    Not on view
    Drawings and PrintsSecond Floor
    Double Crocodile Pendant
    8th–10th century
    Panama; Macaracas
    Gold, quartz
    The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Bequest of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1979 (1979.206.733)
    On view: Gallery 357
    Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the AmericasFirst Floor
    America
    18th century
    Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo (Italian)
    Fresco, transferred to canvas
    Bequest of Grace Rainey Rogers, 1943 (43.85.20)
    On view: Gallery 600
    European PaintingsSecond Floor
    A Stag Lying Down (on a base): The Head of a Crocodile
    after 1770
    Domenico Tiepolo (Italian)
    Pen and brown ink, brown wash, over traces of black chalk
    Robert Lehman Collection, 1975 (1975.1.521)
    Not on view
    The Robert Lehman CollectionFirst Floor
    Crocodile Rattle
    8th century
    Maya
    Ceramic
    The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Bequest of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1979 (1979.206.1143)
    On view: Gallery 358
    Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the AmericasFirst Floor
    Alligators
    1917
    John Singer Sargent (American)
    Watercolor, graphite, and wax crayon on white wove paper
    Gift of Mrs. Francis Ormond, 1950 (50.130.63)
    Not on view
    American Paintings and SculptureFirst and Second Floors
    Satchel
    first quarter 20th century
    American
    Leather, metal
    Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Gift of James J. Freeman, 1963 (2009.300.1547)
    Not on view
    Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the AmericasFirst Floor
    Water Drum
    19th–early 20th century
    Papua New Guinea, Middle Sepik region, Mindimbit village, Iatmul people
    Wood, fiber
    The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Bequest of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1979 (1979.206.1627)
    On view: Gallery 354
    Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the AmericasFirst Floor
    [Crocodile]
    1978
    Joan Fontcuberta (Spanish)
    Gelatin silver print
    Gift of the artist, 1978 (1978.610.1)
    Not on view
    PhotographsSecond Floor
    Crocodile statue
    Ptolemaic or Roman Period, 304 b.c.–364 a.d.
    Italy, Southern Europe, Rome
    Granite
    Purchase, The Bernard and Audrey Aronson Charitable Trust Gift, in memory of her beloved husband, Bernard Arnonson, 1992 (1992.13)
    On view: Gallery 131
    Egyptian ArtFirst Floor
    Masquerade Element: Crocodile Head (Omama)
    17th–19th century
    Yoruba peoples, Owo group
    Nigeria
    Ivory, wood or coconut shell inlay
    Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Klaus G. Perls, 1991 (1991.17.125)
    On view: Gallery 352
    Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the AmericasFirst Floor

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