Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei creates conceptual art that meshes the creative with the political, and he has done so in an environment that is relentlessly oppressive. After creating several controversial works of art and investigation regarding the collapse of shoddily constructed schools in Sichuan schools during the 2008 earthquake, Ai was incarcerated by Chinese authorities for 81 days in 2011 — supposedly for “tax evasion.” Since his release, Ai has continued to speak out against the Chinese government’s suppression of speech, and remains active ontwitter (unofficial English translation) and continues to produce art and to speak out. A documentary about Ai’s life and activism, Ai Weiwei Never Sorry, was recently released in the U.S..
At his compound in China, Ai has over 40 cats and several dogs. These beautiful portraits of Ai with two of his favorite cats were taken by photographer Matthew Niederhauser.
Circle Of Animals / Zodiac Heads by Ai Weiwei
The French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson was a photojournalist for Life and other publications for over three decades. He is widely considered to be the master of street photography and the father of modern photojournalism.
Henri loved cats and was once quoted as saying “I’m an anarchist, yes. Because I’m alive. Life is a provocation…. I’m against people in power and what that imposes upon them. Anglo-Saxons have to learn what anarchism is. For them, it’s violence. A cat knows what anarchy is. Ask a cat. A cat understands. They’re against discipline and authority. A dog is trained to obey. Cats can’t be. Cats bring on chaos.”
Photo by Henri Cartier-Bresson
David Hockney is a painter, printmaker, set designer, and photographer who is based in London. He was an influential member of the “pop art” movement in the ’60s. Hockney is openly gay, and is a synesthite — in his case, he sees colors when music is played. At age 75, Hockney is still an active artist, as he has been for almost 60 years.
His dachshunds, pictured above with him in front of their many portraits, are named Stanley and Boogie.
Hockney sketch of a dachshund.
Pollock with his dogs Gyp and Ahab.
Jackson Pollock, an influential member of the abstract expressionist movement, was known best for his unique “drip painting,” although he experimented with other styles throughout his career. He was lifelong alcoholic who died at age 44 in a drunk driving accident. In 1949, Life magazine asked in a four page spread, “Is [Pollock] the greatest living painter in the United States?”
Pollock’s dog while he was growing up was named Gyp (pictured below). Later, when he and wife Lee Krasner adopted a dog together, he named the animal after his childhood companion.
Pollock with Ahab and Gyp.
Jackson Pollock at age ten with his dog, Gyp.
Frida Kahlo with her pet deer.
Frida Kahlo was an incredibly influential Mexican painter, best known for her self-portraits. Kahlo’s life was spotted with tragedy and pain — she contracted polio at age six, which permanently damaged her right arm, and she was in a bus accident as a teenager that left her with a broken spinal column, 11 fractures in one leg, a dislocated foot and shoulder, and broken collarbone, ribs, and pelvis. A handrail pierced her abdomen and her uterus, which resulted in her inability to have children.
Her art has been described as “folk-art,” “feminist,” and as “surrealism,” but Kahlo herself seemed most concerned with getting to a personal truth with her painting, saying ““I paint my own reality. The only thing I know is that I paint because I need to, and I paint whatever passes through my head without any other consideration.”
Frida kept many pets — multiple pet monkeys, xoloitzcuintli (“Mexican Hairless”) dogs, parrots, parakeets, macaws, chickens, a pet eagle named Gertrudis Caca Blanca (“Gertrude White Shit”), and a fawn called Granizo. Kahlo often painted herself surrounded by her animal companions, who — while most everything else about her life ebbed and flowed — were a calming constant.
Frida Kahlo with one of her xoloitzcuintli dogs.
Frida Kahlo’s Self-Portrait With Monkeys
With his dog, Lump.
Pablo Picasso, perhaps the most influential artist of the 20th century, was born in Spain in 1881. He was christened as Pablo Diego José Francisco de Paula Juan Nepomuceno María de los Remedios Crispiniano de la Santísima Trinidad. Picasso was a painter, sculptor, printmaker, ceramicist, and stage designer. He co-founded the Cubist movement and a variety of other styles. Picasso was ludicrously prolific and he created over 50,0000 artworks in his lifetime — including 12,000 drawings, thousands upon thousands of prints, 2,880 ceramics, 1,885 paintings, over 1000 sculptures, and numerous tapestries and rugs.
Picasso acquired Lump the dachshund in 1957. He initially belonged to photographer David Douglas Duncan, but when he and Pablo met, it was seemingly true love. Lump was allowed anywhere on Picasso’s property, including being the only creature allowed in Picasso’s studio. Lump appeared in 54 of Picasso’s works. Lump and Picasso were together for sixteen years, and died within months of each other.
Pablo Picasso and Lump.
Pablo Picasso’s “Dog” Line Drawing
Norman Rockwell works in his studio with dog, Pitter, at his side.
Painter/illustrator Norman Rockwell remains widely popular for his optimistic depictions of American family life, including his iconic covers for the Saturday Evening Post and Boys’ Life magazine. His most famous work is perhaps “Rosie the Riveter, the icon of the women’s factory worker in America during World War II.
Norman Rockwell often painted dogs, realizing that they were an important part of families and a sense of “home” and often making them central in his compositions. His own dogs, usually the mutts he preferred to purebreds, hung out with him in the studio. He was once quoted as recommending that other artists depict four-legged creatures “just as carefully and understandingly as you paint the people.”
Normal Rockwell posing a beagle for a reference photograph.
“Boy and Girl Gazing At The Moon” by Norman Rockwell
“Georgia O’Keeffe on Evening Walk with her Dog,” by John Loengard.
American painter Georgia O’Keeffe was best known for large paintings of flower blossoms, often painted so close up that they appeared almost abstract. She began working in New Mexico in 1929 and often used the state’s natural ecology as inspiration for her work. She once described Northern New Mexico as: “Such a beautiful, untouched lonely feeling place, such a fine part of what I call the ‘Faraway’.”
Georgia O’Keeffe’s first dog was a standard poodle named Pancho, but he was tragically killed by a car. A neighbor gifted her with two Chow puppies, which she named Bo and Chia. O’Keeffe became hooked on Chows and had six during her lifetime, including the dogs that kept her company during her final years.
Georgia O’Keeffe with her Chow.
René and Georgette Magritte with their dog after the war.
René Magritte was a Belgian surrealist. He was famous for his quirky, witty paintings that were meant to toy with the viewers perception of reality and truth. A great, and perhaps the most famous, example of his art’s sense of humor and philosophy was in the painting “The Treachery of Images,” where a pipe is depicted along with the painted ‘caption’ “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” — “This is not a pipe.” He described painting as “the art of putting colors side by side in such a way that their real aspect is effaced, so that familiar objects—the sky, people, trees, mountains, furniture, the stars, solid structures, graffiti—become united in a single poetically disciplined image. The poetry of this image dispenses with any symbolic significance, old or new.”
Magritte married Georgette Berger in 1922 and the two had a dog, depicted in the two photographs above. Magritte treasured this dog, Lou-Lou. and often brought him around to art openings.
Musician Paul Simon wrote a song based on them in 1983 titled “René and Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After The War.” The song is in the spirit of Magritte’s work itself, as it de-contextualizes Magritte the famous artist and re-imagines he and his wife as devoted fans of doo-wop groups such as The Penguins, The Orioles, The Moonglows, and the Five Satins. The album was a flop but the song is widely regarded by critics (and me) as one of Simon’s very finest compositions.
René and Georgette Magritte with their dog “during” the war (actually photographed well after WWII). Photo by Lothar Wolleh.
“René And Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After The War” – Paul Simon
Paul Klee, his wife Lily, and their cat Bimbo.
Paul Klee’s unique style was influenced by expressionism, orientalism, cubism, and surrealism — taken together along with his childlike enthusiasm, humor, and natural talent, you have something really special. Klee’s immediately identifiable, original work is a favorite of many other artists, art scholars, and teachers.
“Art does not reproduce the visible; rather, it makes visible.” -Paul Klee.
Klee loved cats and incorporated them into many of paintings. He was devoted to Bimbo, his white cat, that he would write to his wife while he was away simply to inquire after the kitty.
“Cat and Bird” by Paul Klee
“The Mountain of the Sacred Cat” by Paul Klee
Andy Warhol and his dachshund, Archie.
Andy Warhola was a hugely influential American Pop artist, film-maker, record producer, and a public figure famous for both his own talents and his ability to find extraordinary individuals to pepper his social circle and his studio/club The Factory. Warhol was also an openly gay man before the gay liberation movement really took off. His paintings are some of the most expensive ever sold, and his legacy also lives on in the countless other artists, musicians, and film-makers that he influenced and encouraged.
Jed Johnson, Andy’s boyfriend, convinced him that they should get a dog in 1973, and the love affair between Andy and Archie began. A few years later, the dog was joined by Amos. Andy took Archie everywhere — to dinner, art openings, and to his studio. He even made art in tribute to his two little dogs…
Andy Warhol, Dachshund print
Andy Warhol, Dachshund print
The most famous surrealist was Salvador Dali, born in Spain in 1904. He was an incredibly talented draftsman who was influenced by the Renaissance masters, but who used his skill to paint bizarre scenes meant to cause confusion and inspire creative interpretation. Dali was also a film-maker, sculptor, and photographer who loved to collaborate with other artists.
Dali also lived a grandiose and eccentric lifestyle that sometimes brought on even more attention than his brilliant artwork. He owned two ocelots, Babou and Bouba, one or both of whom accompanied him in frequently. According to one tale, Dali was once visiting an art gallery in Paris with the ocelot Babou. The owner came up to Dali, yelling “your goddamned cat has made a nuisance on my priceless 17th-century engravings,” Dali responded: “A nuisance of Dali’s,” said Dali, “can only increase their value.” And indeed, he was correct — the gallery owner upped the price of his stained and now doubly historic engravings by fifty percent. (-anecdote from Life magazine, 1969)
Portrait of Dali and cats by photographer, a collaboration with American photographer Philippe Halsman.
Edward Lear, Age 73 1/2 and his cat Foss, age 16.
Edward Lear was a British author/poet and artist/illustrator most famous for his limericks, a form he made popular. He had a great love of language and understanding of the importance of the soundof words rather than their simple meaning. His most famous work is the illustrated “nonesense” poem The Owl and the Pussycat, which he wrote for a three-year-old daughter of friends.
Lear remained unmarried his entire life, but he had many good friends and a beloved cat named Foss, who he depicted often in sketches and letters to friends. Foss had half a tail — someone who had the cat before Lear cut it off. It is said that when Lear moved after Foss came into his life, he designed his new home to be just like his old one so that Foss would have an easier time settling in. Foss lived to the ripe old age of seventeen and when he died, he was buried in Lear’s villa garden with an inscribed headstone.
Romare Bearden was an African-American cartoonist, oil painter and collage artist, as well as a writer. Although he experimented with many different styles and techniques throughout his career, his most famous works are collaged. In the New York Times obituary for him in 1988, he was described as “one of America’s pre-eminent artists” and “the nation’s foremost collagist.”
Bearden loved cats. Among them were Tuttle, Rusty, Mikie, and Gippo. Gippo, pictured above, was described by Bearden thusly: “Well, Gippo is I think a very handsome cat. He’s perfectly symmetrically striped with gray and tan markings. We found him in the woods and he has a little wildcat in him and it took a long time, about six or eight months, when he was a young kitten, to get him trained. But now he’s happy. The studio he feels is his. It’s hard to keep a cat like that for any length of time in a cage at a veterinarian’s. So we took him and it worked out quite all right.”
Romare Bearden’s “Purple Eden” collage — no cats, but plenty of wildlife.
Louis Wain was an English artist best known for drawing large-eyed cats. He suffered from schizophrenia later in life, which many believe can be seen in the evolution of his artistic works.
Wain drew his inspiration from he and his wife Emily’s pet cat Peter. Emily suffered from breast cancer and found Peter to be a great comfort while she was will. Louis taught Peter some tricks, like wearing glasses and pretending to read, in order to keep Emily entertained. Tragically, Emily passed away before she could see Louis’s drawings of Peter and other cats published. But Wain continued to find comfort in his feline companion, of whom he wrote, “To him, properly, belongs the foundation of my career, the developments of my initial efforts, and the establishing of my work.”
Wain was active in the National Cat Club, the Society for the Protection of Cats, and the Anti-Vivisection Society. Although his cat drawings became quite popular, he struggled with finances and often found himself broke. He began struggling with mental illness and was eventually committed to Springfield Mental Hospital in 1924. When he was discovered there by fans such as author H. G. Wells, he was transferred to the much more pleasant Napsbury Hospital north of London. This hospital housed a colony of cats, and Wain spent his final fifteen years there — at peace with his favorite companions.
Earlier work by Louis Wain.
Later work by Louis Wain
Leonardo da Vinci
Study of a child with a cat by Leonardo da Vinci 1478.
Leonardo da Vinci was the archetypal “Renaissance Man,” a painter, sculptor, architect, musician, writer, botanist, scientist, mathematician, engineer, inventor, and cartographer. He is considered to be one of the greatest painters of all time, as well as one of the most intelligent and diverse humans to ever live. Some have described his intelligence, creativity, and thoughtfulness as almost superhuman. The Mona Lisa and The Last Supper are his most famous and revered paintings and are among only a scant number that have survived his time due to his constant experimentation with new techniques.
“The smallest feline is a masterpiece.” – Leonardo da Vinci.
da Vinci was also a proto-animal-rights philosopher, who became a vegetarian while musing in his notebooks that humanity is not “king of the animals” but merely “king of the beasts” — in other words, that we are simply more powerful than other creatures, not actually superior to them. He once wrote, “The time will come when men such as I will look upon the murder of animals as they now look on the murder of men.”
Lady with an Ermine by Leonardo da Vinci
Study of Cats and Other Animals by Leonardo da Vinci