Isaac A. Van Amburgh was a 19th-century American entertainer known for his performances with wild animals, particularly lions and tigers. He gained fame for his daring and often controversial acts in which he interacted closely with these dangerous animals in front of live audiences.
Isaac van Amburgh and his Animals Inscribed 1839
Oil on canvas | 113.7 x 174.8 cm (support, canvas/panel/stretcher external) | RCIN 406346, Royal Collection
Van Amburgh’s performances were a precursor to the modern concept of animal training and the use of exotic animals in entertainment. He would enter cages with ferocious animals, often using a combination of fear, dominance, and conditioning to control them during his acts. His feats included putting his head inside a lion’s mouth, commanding multiple lions and tigers at once, and engaging in mock battles with them.
While he was praised for his audacity and showmanship, there was also criticism and concern about the treatment of the animals in his care. Many animal rights advocates and observers questioned the ethics of subjecting these creatures to potentially harmful and stressful situations for the sake of entertainment.
Van Amburgh’s popularity waned in the latter half of the 19th century as public sentiment shifted towards more humane treatment of animals. His performances are remembered as a reflection of the attitudes and entertainment preferences of his time, as well as a catalyst for discussions about the treatment of animals in captivity.