5 Artists’ Wild Menageries, from Warhol’s Many Cats to Kahlo’s Spider Monkeys
Artists throughout history have embraced the delights of pet ownership. Salvador Dalí’s Colombian ocelot, Babou, reveled in the luxuries of high society with his quirky guardian. Gustav Klimt’s adoration for his beloved cat, Katze, is said to have rivaled the Symbolist painter’s passion for women. Pablo Picasso and Lump the Dachshund shared a timeless, doting love story. The magnetism between artists and animals has been the subject of articles, exhibitions, and several books, including Alison Nastasi’s 2015 compilation of photographs and narratives chronicling the relationships between 50 artists and their cats and Susie Hodge’s 2017 anthology of anecdotes about famous artists and their pets.
Yet few artists lay claim to multigenerational cat colonies or vast menageries of cohabitating woodland creatures, primates, and vermin. The many pets belonging to the five artists below have served as loyal sidekicks and steady muses. They’ve proved both influential and motivational to their visionary keepers. We celebrate these artists for their exceptional contributions to the canon but a spark of that profound inspiration is owed to the devoted companionship of their furry, fuzzy, and feathered friends.
Rows upon rows of polychromatic birds inhabit Hunt Slonem’s radiant canvases so it’s no surprise that the artist’s Brooklyn studio doubles as a substantial aviary. Indeed, the American Neo-Expressionist painter, printmaker, and sculptor keeps some 60 rescued birds as pets. He attributes his fascination with exotic avians—as well as butterflies and rabbits, which also regularly populate his paintings—to his childhood in Hawaii, where he lived temporarily while his father was posted at a local naval base. He then briefly studied abroad in the jungles of Nicaragua and Mexico. Having spent his formative years in spiritual places, Slonem celebrates his subjects as hallowed forces of nature. Tropical birds still rank among his highest-concept sources of inspiration for their majesty of form, big personalities, and magnificent colors, which Slonem has referred to as “the elixir of life.”
Frida Kahlo’s motley menagerie comprised chickens, sparrows, macaws and parakeets, Bonito the parrot, a fawn named Granizo, spider monkeys Fulang Chang and Caimito de Guayabal, the empirically-named eagle Gertrudis Caca Blanca (Gertrude White Shit), and hairless Xoloitzcuintli dogs with ancient Aztec lineage. While this might seem like a lineup at a local zoo, Kahlo’s treasured pets doubled as muses for 55 of the 143 paintings she created in her lifetime. Kahlo’s narrative was punctuated by celebrity yet plagued with misfortune and despair; a near-fatal bus accident left an 18-year-old Kahlo with excruciating spinal injuries and an iron rod impaling her abdomen, rendering her unable to carry a child to term despite multiple tragic attempts. Kahlo’s notoriously volatile relationship with the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera was likewise poisoned by recurring extramarital affairs. She quelled her loneliness with animal allies, many of whom make special appearances in various self-portraits such as Fulang Chang and I (1937), Itzcuintli Dog with Me (ca. 1938), and Me and My Parrots (1941).
Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Cats suggested as the fifty-three stations of the Tokaido, Edo Period. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Utagawa Kuniyoshi was an Edo-period ukiyo-e print master revered for his many skilled portrayals of the Japanese landscape, Kabuki performers, geisha women, and cats by the basketful. Kuniyoshi’s legendary fondness for the species is apparent in his innumerable mid-19th century depictions of the subject, including Four Cats in Different Poses, Cats Forming the Characters for Catfish, and Cats Suggested As The Fifty-three Stations of the Tōkaidō, a charming triptych illustrating 55 cats engaged in quintessential feline activities: napping, fighting, mousing, eating, and, of course, mischiefing.
Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Four cats in different poses , Edo Period. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Tales of Kuniyoshi’s predilection for cats have survived the centuries. His studio was purportedly crawling with them and he’d shelter sleeping kittens in his kimono while he worked. According to an account by one of his pupils, Kuniyoshi would mourn his dearly departed cats by adding their Buddhist names to an altar specifically built for them in his home.
Photo of Emily Carr and some of her pets. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Canadian painter and writer Emily Carr bequeathed two legacies: a notable body of work documenting First Nation ritual objects and a reputation for being a true pet-hoarding eccentric. With a Post-Impressionist style cultivated during her studies in London and Paris, Carr fervently depicted totem poles, which she revered as precious relics of rapidly evanescing indigenous cultures, and the sprawling swathes of pristine wilderness that characterize her native British Columbia.
Emily Carr, Odds and Ends, 1939. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Carr didn’t find professional success until she was in her late 50s and the years leading up to her recognition as a pioneer of Canadian modernism were marked by depression and “hysteria,” for which she spent over a year in the hospital. Carr was reclusive by nature and consistently preferred the company of animals; in addition to her cherished English sheepdogs Flirt, Punk, and Loo, she also allegedly kept rats, cats, chipmunks, a raccoon, and a Javanese macaque named Woo, with whom Carr shared an indelible bond. At the end of her life, an ailing Carr contentiously sent Woo to live at a Vancouver zoo. The separation proved too much for Woo, who died a year later.
Andy Warhol’s penchant for repetition as a printmaker helps to illuminate his foray into fostering 25 cats, all of whom he named Sam. In 1952, a 20-something Warhol welcomed his mother Julia as a long-term roommate in his Upper East Side apartment, where their remarkable kitty collective sprung forth.
Perceiving that their lone queen, Hester, would fare better with a feline counterpart, the Warhols brought Sam the tomcat home to keep her company. And keep her company he did. Hester and Sam procreated until they had created an inadvertent cat colony, which inspired a limited-edition series of cat drawings by Warhol with accompanying calligraphy by Julia, a gifted illustrator in her own right. Julia’s endearing grammatical flub yielded the book’s title, 25 Cats Name Sam and One Blue Pussy (1954). Warhol was also a dedicated dog dad. In the 1970s, he adopted Dachshunds Archie and, later, Amos. In short order, both pups established a cozy residence at the epicenter of Warhol’s world.