What We’re Reading: “Artists and their Pets: True Stories of Famous Artists and their Animal Friends”

Katy Thompson, Children’s Education Associate

When the John S. and James L. Knight Learning Center at FWMoA was open, we received a comment from a young visitor asking for more chapter books in our Reading area. Following our renovation from an Early Learning Center to a more differentiated Learning Center, we  realized we have many, beautifully illustrated board books and pictures books, but no chapter books. Therefore, the request for a chapter book was both prescient and interesting; however, as it turns out, finding a chapter book about art is more difficult than one would think. Eventually, we stumbled across this illustrated chapter book: Artists and their Pets: True Stories of Famous Artists and their Animal Friends by Susie Hodge with art by Violet Lemay.

An image of the book cover discussed in the post.

Artists and their Pets looks at 20 artists, male and female; dead and alive; all from various countries; who had pets, were inspired by their pets, or both! As we’ve sheltered at home these past months, pets have featured heavily in our #WorkFromHome tweets, texts, and Zoom meetings. Therefore, it is particularly timely to learn about Frida Kahlo’s attachment to her pets while she was bedridden following a bus accident or Henri Matisse keeping company with his cats after an illness which also left him bedridden. The book, in no particular order, highlights the unconventional ways in which the artists work, similar to many of us learning to work from home, and how their animals provided unconditional, unquestioning love through their travails. From enjoying their company to painting them into their artworks, let us look at a few of the artists, and their pets, featured in the book! We’ve also included photos of our pets throughout the post!

As a note, because it is a chapter book, it contains quite a bit of text. Therefore, we suggest this book for upper-elementary and middle-grade readers. The author provides a short summation of their lives and artistic career, interspersing tidbits of information about their animal friends and muses along the way. Some artists were inspired by them, painted them, or simply preferred their company to that of humans or a solitary studio. For example, Norman Rockwell kept a folder entitled “Mutts” to use as references, advising that artists painting animals should do so “just as carefully and understandingly as you paint the people” (p. 35) while Romare Bearden kept company with various cats, though his artwork focused on the African American experience in America. While some artists took care of their drawings and paintings, Suzanne Valadon fed her pet goat the drawings she did not like! In other oddities, Salvador Dalí had an anteater he would take on walks around Paris as well as pet ocelots. Some artists dedicated whole books to animals, like Andy Warhol’s book of cat illustrations and David Hockney’s dog book. Leonardo da Vinci studied animals, like bats and birds, sketching them to create the designs for his flying machines. Others, like Georgia O’Keefe, kept chow dogs for company while Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee, who where neighbors, could see each other’s cats in their respective windows.  Peppered with illustrations of each artist and their pet(s), whether generally or portraits of their favorite, this book serves as a great introduction to a diverse group of artists, their style, and their lives. Franz Marc leaves us with a question that lingers: “Is there a more mysterious idea for an artist than to imagine how nature is reflected in the eyes of an animal?” (p. 93).

Artists included in the book: Pablo Picasso, Frida Kahlo, Norman Rockwell, Gustav Klimt, Paul Klee, Suzanne Valadon, Ai Weiwei, Romare Bearden, Franz Marc, Georgia O’Keefe, Andy Warhol, Salvador Dalí, Henri Matisse, Wassily Kandinsky, David Hockney, Jackson Pollock, René Magritte, Leonardo da Vinci, Sir Edwin Landseer, and Tsuguharu Foujita.  

Want to make art of your pet? Try out one of Saturday Studio posts! Director of Children’s Education Alyssa Dumire used kitchen lithography techniques to make this print of her dog, Addy!

A print of Alyssa Dumire's dog, Addy.
A print of Addy! Compare it with her photo above, is it a fair likeness? Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

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