The Dog Days of Summer

Buster, Sassy, Coco—a pet by any other name is, well, still a pet. But as an upcoming exhibit at the Blanton Museum of Art shows, our furry friends have come to mean so much more.

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Early 20th-century American painter Edward Hopper once said of his chosen craft, “Great art is the outward expression of an inner life of the artist.” In Hopper’s case, that life included a close bond with Perkins Youngblood Dos Passos, his beloved Siamese cat and the muse for several of his prints and paintings.

In the Company of Cats and Dogs, on display at the Blanton of Museum of Art starting June 22, investigates the way artists have portrayed the ever-evolving relationship between humans and their pets over the last three millenia—from the reverence of felines in ancient Egypt to our furry friends’ contemporary roles as family members and YouTube stars.

Blanton senior curator Francesca Consagra took an interdisciplinary approach, consulting with UT experts in fields like psychology and anthrozoology—a new discipline that studies human-animal interactions—to better understand the role pets have played in our lives over time.

“There’s a hierarchy to our relationship with animals,” Consagra says. “Some we love, some we hate, some we eat. How can we treat a dog like a family member, and then go out and eat a pork sandwich? I want this show to encourage visitors to think more deeply about those relationships.”

Egyptian Cat

Consagra turned to UT psychology professor Sam Gosling, director of UT’s Animal Personality Institute, for insight. The answers to her questions, Gosling says, aren’t simple. For reasons largely unknown, pet ownership has risen sharply over time. Since the 1970s, the number of pets in American households has tripled. Today, 62 percent of U.S. homes include at least one animal.

“We’ve always used animals for our own purposes, but one thing that has changed is our purposes,” Gosling says. “An early purpose would be, say, to keep wolves away from sheep. One of the most common purposes now is company. We’ve essentially designed animals that can do that for us.”

According to Gosling, we’ve groomed our pets to fill many voids in our lives, whether as companions, protectors, or simply good listeners. And humans are increasingly reaping the benefits of these relationships, from improved mental health to lower blood pressure and longer lifespans. But researchers are just now starting to delve into the science behind pets, their personalities, and how they relate to their owners.

“Do you look like your dog, or does your lifestyle create a dog that looks like you?” Consagra asks. “People are just starting to get into it scientifically, but artists have been depicting that relationship for millennia.”

More than 160 works by many of those artists, including Francisco Goya and Pablo Picasso, will be on display at the Blanton as part of the new exhibit this summer. Pieces on loan from the Harry Ransom Center, Houston’s Museum of Fine Art, and even some generous Texas Exes will allow museumgoers to chart animals’ evolution from feral hunters to pseudo-children—an evolution that Gosling says is far from finished.

“It will be interesting to see if pets, as we know them now, will become redundant,” Gosling says. “We used to use horses to pull plows, and now we use tractors. Maybe we’ll see the need for pets decline as Facebook rises. Or as robots get better.”

In the Company of Cats and Dogs will be on display at the Blanton Museum of Art from June 22 through Sept. 21.

From top: Sinibaldo Scorza’s “Studies of a Greyhound” (1607); “Seated Cat,” c. 712-332 B.C.

Images courtesy the Blanton Museum.

 

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