Depictions of dolphins with scales?

I have seen sculpture and antique furniture with what I thought were fish, but are described as dolphins. The posture is often head down/tail up. But these so-called dolphins are depicted with scales.

Are these really supposed to be dolphins, or are the descriptions consistently wrong? If they are, why did all these artists get the idea that dolphins had scales?

Maybe you’re thinking of the wrong type of dolphin?

The dolphin fish Blake mentions are not significant here - I’m sure the OP is referring to antique and classical European furniture and art works. Dolphins (the cetaceans, not the fish) have been used as decorative motifs by European artists for thousands of years, but their use dates from well before a proper taxonomic study had been made.

So the artists didn’t know they were mammals - they looked like fish, therefore they were fish as far as they were concerned, and the scales are just artistic licence in the light of that mistake.

On a similar note, I saw a painting with a whale with hair because the artist had never seen one but knew it was a mammal.

CookingWithGas, when said they looked like fish, did you mean they were shaped more like the fish in Blake’s link? Or were they basically dolphin shaped but looked like fish because of the scales?

Did they look anything like that?

These are known as shachi, sculptural motifs that grace the roofs of castles around here. They are often refered to as dolphins in English, though the dolphin in question is neither the cetacean, nor the mahi-mahi, but a mythical fish.

If the antiques are European and date from the turn of the century, there’s a tiny chance some japonisme crept in there… But that’s not much more than a WAG.

FWIW, dolphins in heraldry are depicted with scales as well.

[This page is big an takes a while to load, but it’s pretty cool, 'specially if you like heraldry. You’ll have to scroll down to the dolphin entry.]

jovan has it right.
The depictions you have seen are mythical beasts. Although it is true that there are animals called dolphins, there was a time when few people would ever see one or know what they might look like.
You are cursed by your superior knowledge. If you are presented with a carved dolphin on a piece of furniture, you naturally expect it to look like the familiar (to you) dolphin we all know and love. In times past however, this would not be true. Unless you were a sailor, you would never have the slightest idea what this fantastic beast could possibly look like.
Thus the “dolphin” entered into the catalog of design motifs in the category of “Mythical Beast”. It’s an attractive motif by the way, and it’s use continued long after the depiction was known to look unrealistic.

Links to stylized dolphins:

These days some cabinetmakers are incorporating realistic dolphins into their work. Links below:

It’s sort of funny, but I think you could make the argument that these are not authentic dolphins. The reference to “dolphins”, or “carved dolphins” on a piece of furniture implies the familiar stylized depiction. That point is arguable, but talk to an antique dealer, mention dolphins, show them a picture of the two modern ones I linked to, and I think you’ll hear them say something like, “Oh! You mean those kind of dolphins.

Oriental motifs too, are common in european furniture. The ball and claw foot is an obvious example. I like jovan’s link, because it suggests the possibility of this connection between the motif and it’s (presumed) oriental origins. It is possible.

Best type of furniture to see dolphins:
Early Georgian Pier tables often have them
Empire furniture
Cinque Cento
renaisance revival styles

Interesting. I seem to recall “dolphin” being offered on restaurant menus; at some point they started saying mahi-mahi because patrons were uncomfortable asking for “dolphin”, even it it was a fish, and not the beloved Flipper.

The appearance of dolphins in European art has changed greatly over time.

The Minoans depicted dolphins in their art from 1600 BCE onwards, and in fact Aristotle even claimed that dolphins were mammals rather than fish, but even so, some artists of his time and many more for centuries afterwards depicted them with scales because they weren’t making portraits. Many of them would never have seen a dolphin close up anyway.

Here’s a Greek one from c. 500 BCE, whereas the feet on this table are scaly, stylised dolphins even though it dates from the 1870s.

Many depictions of dolphins are copies of other art works, rather than studies made from nature, and that has resulted in a lot of distortion century by century. It’s not likely that they would have been influenced by Japanese mythology - they already had plenty of local examples to refer to.

Medieval and Renaissance art also relied heavily on the tradition of bestiaries, in which mythical animals and unfamiliar real animals were depicted alongside well-known animals, all as if the descriptions were equally factual. Even common animals are shown in a very distorted form in heraldry.

The use of dolphins as decorative motifs have mostly been symbolic or representational, not accurate depictions of real creatures.

Does anyone have an current/ valid links to these materials now?
The ones posted no longer work.

I am research a set of cast iron dolphin chair legs and am a tad stuck as to authenticating the time of production, style, etc.


I doubt that you can date them because there were so many made over the centuries. I see plenty for sale on ebay and a simple search for “cast iron dolphin chair legs” will produce many hits.

Use the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine. I tried it on several of the pages referenced in this thread and it had cached copies of all of them.

I have never seen any as chair legs, so I searched eBay for “cast iron dolphin chair legs” (in quotes) and got zero hits. I searched without quotes and got a lot of hits for cast iron cookware, some claw-foot table legs, but no chair legs.

Now this is the US, maybe things are different in Europe? I am just curious what they would look like.