William Holbrook Beard, who worked in New York City from 1859 until his death, earned a reputation as one of America's finest animal painters. Many of his paintings engaged in a tradition dating back to antiquity that depicted animals mimicking human behavior. Here, Beard uses animals to satirize investing: the bears symbolize "bearish" (conservative) investors, and the bulls represent "bullish" (aggressive) investors. The chaos evident in this scene may refer to the stock market crash of 1873.
In 1882, an American art critic praised the painting: "No recent work of Mr. Beard's is more elaborate, or more plainly shows the resources of his imagination, than the great painting entitled Bulls and Bears in Wall Street. Through this thoroughfare, the financial centre of New York and of the United States, we see a vast crowd of struggling bears and bulls rending each other in a tremendous conflict for the master. They are all in dead earnest; it is evident that they have serious work on hand. But the severity of the battle is relieved by touches of humor, such as a bear tossed in the air or a bull with a tuft of wool on his horns. In a side eddy a bear is seen sitting on the pavement busily examining the hide of a bull he has slaughtered and plundered; in another corner a bear is observed busily engaged in studying his account book. In the foreground a magnificent bull with triumphant mien stands forward as champion, and seems to claim the battle for his comrades. The hue and cry of the Stock Exchange, the vast nervous energy, the terrific passions and the tragedies and successes of that maelstrom of life in the nineteenth century, have never before been suggested with such vividness and power."
The setting for this painting is Broad Street, looking north. The New York Stock Exchange occupied the building at the left from 1865 until its demolition in 1901. The current New York Stock Exchange was constructed on the same site in 1903.