When an artist's pet is also their muse Pablo Picasso made studies of Lump, an adored dachshund. And Frida Kahlo's catalogue is packed with self-portraits featuring her pet monkeys and parrots.

Mr. Whiskers is ready for his close-up: When an artist's pet is also their muse

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/1155259263/1158401892" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Every day millions of people around the world post pictures and videos of their pets online. The tradition of creating and sharing such images actually goes back about 300 years in painting and sculpture. In honor of National Love Your Pet Day, NPR's Chloe Veltman brings us a story about the artists who loved their pets so much, they use them as inspiration for their work.

CHLOE VELTMAN, BYLINE: At the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, there's a captivating self-portrait of the artist Joan Brown locked in an embrace with Donald, her resplendent tabby cat.

NANCY LIM: She is holding on to Donald so tightly. It's not just an embrace. It's something more.

VELTMAN: Curator Nancy Lim says between the 1960s and '80s, the San Francisco artist, who's the subject of a major retrospective at the museum right now, painted dozens of pictures of her pets. The cats and dogs in her work seem fully present, self-aware and all-knowing. In this painting, Donald has an especially frank look in his big, yellow eyes.

LIM: She considered him very wise, someone who could carry on human conversation if he could.

VELTMAN: Donald was more than a close companion to Brown. Lim says he was also a business asset.

LIM: She decided to list him as an income deduction because he was a live-in model.

VELTMAN: The IRS audited the artist for attempting to deduct cat food and vet bills on her tax return. But Brown successfully argued her case, and her cat thereafter earned himself a nickname.

LIM: Donald the Deductible.

VELTMAN: Sahar Khouri is impressed with Joan Brown's chutzpah.

SAHAR KHOURI: I'm so scared of the IRS, I won't even claim my gas.

VELTMAN: The Oakland, Calif.-based artist is touring the exhibition with her service animal Esther, an adorable, curly-haired, floppy-eared white mutt.

KHOURI: She's currently maybe around 14 and travels with me everywhere I go, unwillingly has become a part of my work.


VELTMAN: Over the years, Khouri has crafted many sculptures featuring her pets, including a fantastical circus-style pyramid of 15 glazed ceramic Esthers perching on each other's backs. Khouri says just like Joan Brown, her pets - she has a cat named Lola, too - are part of her everyday landscape.

KHOURI: You're just archiving your daily life, and I can't imagine not having the animals be, I guess, a part of that.

ALAN BRADDOCK: The history of artists drawing inspiration from nonhuman animals goes back to the beginning of the history of art.

VELTMAN: That's Alan Braddock. He's an art historian at the College of William and Mary in Virginia.

BRADDOCK: But making portraits of pets really is a more modern phenomenon and largely in the Western world.

VELTMAN: Braddock says the tradition is rooted in Western philosophical notions of human individualism. Basically, pets are fully realized beings rather than just dumb animals. One of the earliest examples is the British satirical artist William Hogarth's 1745 self-portrait titled "The Painter And His Pug."

BRADDOCK: Right there in the foreground is his pug dog named Trump, of all things. Hogarth loved his dog and saw the dog as a kind of emblem of his own pugnaciousness as an artist.

VELTMAN: Many artists followed suit, like Pablo Picasso with his studies of Lump, an adored dachshund, and Frida Kahlo, whose self-portraits often feature her pet monkeys and parrots.

BRADDOCK: She admired the animals' creativity and saw it as a reflection of her own.

VELTMAN: Some artists who portray other people's pets feel this same sense of affinity. Jesse Freidin worked as a professional dog photographer for 15 years. He's best known for a series of portraits of assorted canines dressed up as Lady Gaga.


LADY GAGA: Just put your paws up because you were born this way, baby.

VELTMAN: Freidin says the art he makes with dogs aims to get at something deeper than cuteness, though the doggy Gagas are admittedly very cute.

JESSE FREIDIN: I do want to articulate something about my human condition and experience. An animal becomes this exterior representation, and it's powerful.

VELTMAN: He adds, when artists make portraits of pets, they're often really making portraits of themselves. Chloe Veltman, NPR News.

Copyright © 2023 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.