Frogs and Toads in Art and Storytelling

In stories, mice are to rats as frogs are to toads. Unlike hares and rabbits, toads and frogs are actually the same category of animal, but one has garnered a better reputation. I’ve heard ‘toad’ used as an insult, but I’ve only ever heard ‘froggy’ to describe the shape of someone’s mouth. Neither is especially complimentary, but frogs seem cuter.

The Real Difference Between Frogs And Toads

Wheras the categories of ‘mice’ and ‘rats’ encompass many different small mammals who may or may not be closely related to each other, toads are a subcategory of frog.

Generally speaking, whether we call an amphibian a frog or a toad will depend on a few visible markers:

MORE FROGGYMORE TOADLY
SKINmoist and slimydry and bumpy
BODYlong and leanshort and squat
EGGSin a massin a chain
HABITATwetterdrier
MOVEMENTleapycrawly

So how is this distinction useful for storytellers making use of anthropomorphised amphibians?

European Fire-Bellied Toad and Yellow-Bellied Toad from Brehms Tierleben Vol 1, illustrator Joseph Fleischmann, Leipzig, Vienna Bibliographisches Institut 1920
Shadowland mag frog by A. M. Hopfmüller
Shadowland mag frog by A. M. Hopfmüller
Poor Cecco by Marjery William Bianco illustrated by Arthur Rackham Murrum and Toad the Night-watchman

I’m thinking slime. I think flies, quick movements combined with general sloth. I think of The Frog Princess, literally and metaphorically ‘slimy’, imposing himself on a young woman knowing full well she doesn’t want him anywhere near her.

Ida Rentoul Outhwaite (1888-1960) Australian illustrator
A Maxfield Parrish cover for William Randolph Hearst’s magazine for July 1912 frog

The Quack Frog

By-Arthur-Rackham-The-Quack-Frog-Aesops-Fables-VS-Vernon-Jones-1912
By Arthur Rackham “The Quack Frog”, Aesop’s Fables VS Vernon Jones 1912

Toads As Mark Of Healthy Boyhood

Especially in nineteenth and twentieth century children’s books, boys and frogs are linked. The painting by Dirk Sargeant below is an excellent visual depiction of what I’m talking about:

The boy takes a natural and mischievous delight in these disgusting creatures, usually while a disapproving girl or woman looks on. In Charlotte’s Web, E. B. White wrote a brother (Avery) who is the stereotypically perfect representation of rural boyhood — part of that requires a fascination with frogs.

Though the famous nursery rhyme below doesn’t mention frogs and toads exactly, they fit into the same category as snails:

What are little boys made of?
What are little boys made of?
  Snips and snails
  And puppy-dogs’ tails
That’s what little boys are made of

What are little girls made of?
What are little girls made of?
  Sugar and spice
  And everything nice [or “all things nice”]
That’s what little girls are made of

Toads are basically gross-out material, related to Bakhtin’s ideas about bodily discomfort.

George William Willis - Leap Frog
George William Willis – Leap Frog
Frank Beard (American, 1842-1905) Illustrator and cartoonist. “What may happen when little boys play leap-frog too much.”

The Posh Dandy Toad

I believe the underlying idea in this archetype is that the ugly middle-aged man tries to improve himself by dressing in a way his gentlemanly salary allows. The juxtaposition is the joke, and another take on ‘making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear’ or ‘lipstick on a pig’. The best-known example of this kind of toad is probably Toad from The Wind In The Willows, published 1908. The illustration below is also from around that time.

Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Jeremy Fisher was published in 1893, and it may have been Potter who ushered in the age of the well-dressed toad in children’s stories. Her publishers weren’t confident a slimy amphibian could be empathetic, so Potter was required to compensate for Jeremy’s ugliness by painting unusually beautiful backgrounds. It was Potter’s book which proved even a toady type thing can be sympathetic.

L. Leslie Brooke (1862–1940) illustration from A Roundabout Turn by Robert H. Charles, Frederick Warne & Company, Ltd., 1930
L. Leslie Brooke (1862–1940) illustration from A Roundabout Turn by Robert H. Charles, Frederick Warne & Company, Ltd., 1930

WHAT DID AESOP HAVE TO SAY ABOUT FROGS AND TOADS?

By Arthur Rackham The Quack Frog Aesop's Fables VS Vernon Jones 1912
By Arthur Rackham The Quack Frog Aesop’s Fables VS Vernon Jones 1912
Aesop’s Fables London Adam & Charles Black 1912 Artist - Charles Folkard - The Proud Frog
Aesop’s Fables London Adam & Charles Black 1912 Artist – Charles Folkard – The Proud Frog

Cute Frogs

Make any slimy thing cuter by giving them clothes. Extend cuteness further by depicting them in mid-action, putting on those clothes, behaving like humans. The cutest thing you can do with a frog is to make it behave like a child human.

By Mien Visser-Düker, (1881-1961) with Music by Maria van Ebbenhorst Tengbergen, (1885-1980) and Drawings by Leo Visser, (1880-1950). Nuts Publisher Zalt-Bommel - Jan Nieuwenhuyzen, 1917 insects lizards
By Mien Visser-Düker, (1881-1961) with Music by Maria van Ebbenhorst Tengbergen, (1885-1980) and Drawings by Leo Visser, (1880-1950). Nuts Publisher Zalt-Bommel – Jan Nieuwenhuyzen, 1917 insects lizards
Richard Scarry (1919-1994) Illustration for "The rooster struts" 1963 frogs
Richard Scarry (1919-1994) Illustration for “The rooster struts” 1963 frogs
Childcraft The How and  Why Library (Volume 1) - Poems and Rhymes 1979 Illustration by Charley Harper
Childcraft The How and Why Library (Volume 1) – Poems and Rhymes 1979 Illustration by Charley Harper
The Princess and the Frog, Arthur Rackham, 1909 (illustration for The Frog Prince by Brothers Grimm)
The Princess and the Frog, Arthur Rackham, 1909 (illustration for The Frog Prince by Brothers Grimm)
Anne Bachelier frog climbing ladder
Anne Bachelier frog climbing ladder
Christmas Party with a wealthy Family of Toads 1886 Pepe A Christmas Story by Theodor Kittelsen
Christmas Party with a wealthy Family of Toads 1886 Pepe A Christmas Story by Theodor Kittelsen
Paul Lothar Müller (1869-1956), ‘Froschkonzert’ (Frog Concert), Der Guckkasten, 1909
Paul Lothar Müller (1869-1956), ‘Froschkonzert’ (Frog Concert), Der Guckkasten, 1909
Art by Lou Mayer Puck Magazine woman on lilypad
Art by Lou Mayer Puck Magazine woman on lilypad

Header illustration: rederick Stuart Church (1842–1924) ~ Frogs and Mosquitos summer concert ~ Harpers

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