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The Beauty of the Beasts: Artists and their Pets in 20th-Century Art

January 7, 2009–March 16, 2009
Ryerson and Burnham Libraries

Ever since early man first painted on the walls of caves, animals have constituted an important subject in art. The ancients depicted beasts as mystical; medieval Christians portrayed animals allegorically in bestiaries, meant to provide religious and moral guidance; and portraitists of all eras used animals as symbols of the sitter’s importance, as seen in the hunting dogs favored by Renaissance noblemen to denote virility and aristocratic style or the pedigreed horses that wealthy and equally well-bred Englishmen of the Georgian age kept for hunting and racing.

The history of art also reveals a number of artists who had animal companions of their own. In his autobiography, Renaissance sculptor Benvenuto Cellini mentions Barucco, a “shaggy dog, big and handsome,” while Caravaggio is recorded as having gone about Baroque Rome with a black poodle called Cornacchia. Many modern artists have also documented their pets in their work. For some, like Frida Kahlo, they are beloved friends; for others, like Pablo Picasso, convenient models. Some of these animals have become pop culture icons in their own right, like the Blue Dog; others, like Pierre Bonnard’s dachshunds, sit quietly in the background.

This exhibition in the Reading Room of the Ryerson Library highlights several books from the collection that feature artists and the animals that have inspired them. Please note that the exhibition is closed on Sundays.

Frida Kahlo. Self-Portrait with Monkey (detail), 1940. Private collection, U.S.A.