Edward Hopper and his wife, Jo, spent their summers in South Truro, Massachusetts, on the tip of Cape Cod. Their neighbor was novelist John Dos Passos, whose wife bred Siamese cats. According to Francesca Consagra, a senior curator at the University of Texas at Austin’s Blanton Museum of Art, one cat in particular, called Perkins, caught Hopper’s eye. Perkins—named after editor Maxwell Perkins—became the subject of numerous sketches and studies by Hopper, which carefully depict the docile feline lounging around, stretching, and sleeping.
Hopper is one in a long line of artists—dating back to the ancient Egyptians—who have been influenced artistically by their four-legged friends. An exhibition opening this summer at the Blanton explores this 33-century-long fascination through more than 150 cat- and dog-inspired paintings, sculptures, drawings, and etchings. Titled “In the Company of Cats and Dogs,” the show will feature works by such artists as Pablo Picasso, Vasily Kandinsky, William Wegman, Dieter Roth, Francisco de Goya, and Louise Bourgeois.
Curated by Consagra and organized with the help of the university’s Anthrozoology department, the show will delve into the ever-changing dynamic between humans and their cats and dogs. Consagra will divide the works into nine sections, each highlighting one of the various roles animals have played throughout history. These roles include hunters and herders, human protectors, symbols of morality in literature and art, religious and mythological beings, and, of course, pets.
Images of cats and dogs have long represented unsavory traits. Cats have been associated with witchcraft and lasciviousness, while small lap dogs can symbolize laziness or promiscuity. The small dog in Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s 1895 Poster for “L’Artisan moderne,” for example, adds to the risqué tone of the scene. The work, which is an advertisement for designer André Marty’s home furnishings, riffs on the idea of a doctor making a house call and features an artisan with his toolbox tending to the needs of a bed-ridden woman. The dog’s wagging tail and suggestive position on the woman’s lap intimate that the nature of the craftsman’s visit is more for pleasure than it is for business.
An ancient Egyptian panel from the sarcophagus of the scribe Menna will present viewers with one example of how people have ascribed sacred and mythical powers to animals. Etched in the panel is an image of Anubis, the jackal-headed god associated with mummification and passage into the afterlife. Depictions of Anubis often dressed the walls of burial sites, including the tomb of King Tut and the Temple of Ramses II.
The hunting portion of the show celebrates animals for their keen tracking abilities. In John Sargent Noble’s idyllic 1881 canvas Otter Hunting (“On the Scent”), a team of hounds flocks to the scent of its assigned prey. Wet from the swim to their target, the dogs obediently dig to retrieve the otter for their hunting party.
Cats, or “biological mouse traps,” as Consagra calls them, will also be represented in this section. In Takahashi Hiroaki’s 1931 woodblock print Cat Prowling Around a Staked Tomato Plant, a wide-eyed cat stalks its prey. Ready to pounce, the black-and-white feline maneuvers through a tomato plant, protecting the crop from unwanted visitors.
Otto Dix’s 1968 Cat in Moon Landscape features a cat executing a similar task. Nimbly, the cat weaves its body through the long stems of a garden’s pink and purple flowers. Its drawn claws and wide, glowing eyes indicate that it’s on the prowl.
The final room of the show will be devoted to depictions of cats and dogs as domesticated companions. Among these works will be David Bates’s soulful 1983 painting The Whittler. Executed in his trademark cartoonish style, the canvas features a smiling craftsman carving a piece of wood, while his faithful dog sits by his side.
Sandy Skoglund presents an alternate interpretation of pet ownership in her trippy photograph Radioactive Cats. The work depicts an army of futuristic, DayGlo-green cats taking over the sterile, dreary home of an elderly couple. Crawling over the furniture and appliances, the creatures migrate towards the refrigerator, on an apparent mission for food.
“In the Company of Cats and Dogs” will be on view at the Blanton Museum of Art from June 22 to September 21, 2014.