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Pets’ corner in the studio

13 December 2003

12:00 AM

13 December 2003

12:00 AM

Impressionist Cats and Dogs James H. Rubin

Yale, pp.144, 25

This pleasant book, easy on the eye and (as importantly with art books) the thigh, has a pretty picture containing a dog or cat on virtually every page, so the fact that its extended essay of a text is disappointing hardly matters.

To give Professor Rubin his due he tries to descend from his academic rostrum and treat the subject as a pet-lover as much as an art historian. That the book is dedicated to a couple of cats, Coco and Girlfriend, carries coochy-coo too far; but it is refreshing these deconstructive days to hear he ‘adores Impressionist paintings and quotidian quadrupeds’ — even if one could do without the prolixity.

Although he confines himself to selected impressionist cats and dogs he sets the scene and the skimpy tone of what follows by rattling through millennia of animal paintings and man’s relation to pets in six illustrated pages. As hunters and guardians, dogs have been man’s best friend for thousands of years, but their pampering appears a comparatively modern phenomenon. A canine tax in Paris first imposed in 1855 drew a distinction between ‘utilitarian’ and ‘luxury’ dogs. By that date the canine population of the city was 100,000. Today it has doubled. In Manhattan it is currently a mere 23,000. Rubin presumably mentions this because he lives there. He does not say how many dogs there are in London.

Britain was first to categorise dogs and to pass a prevention of cruelty to animals act. In France a similar act became law in 1850. This softening of attitudes also gave rise to public pet cemeteries and the domestication of cats. Up till the 19th century cats were for catching mice and throwing bricks at, as they still are for some of us. According to Rubin, and this is where he starts to wax symbolic in customary academic style, cats only became fashionably strokable rather than mice exterminators when they gained respectability as embodiments of ‘freedom and unconventionality’. The cats and dogs in impressionistic pictures he interprets as either ‘symbolic’ or ‘natural’. In Manet’s once scandalous nude, ‘Olympia’, ‘the cat stands for the independent artist’, whereas in Renoir’s ‘Madame Charpentier and Her Children’ ‘the dog is a crucial member of a loving family’.

One person’s explanation is another’s irritation. In the catalogue for the last major survey of Manet’s work the entry for ‘Olympia’ warns that the famous picture has caused reams of interpretation over the 150 years since it was painted, with art historians the worst offenders. Artists invariably hate their paintings being turned into stories, but for historians and critics it is the only publishable way. Rubin’s text is short but he still manages to flannel and pontificate.

Renoir is especially hard done by. Here is a steamed up Rubin on ‘Sleeping Girl with Cat’: ‘…her blouse has accidentally — though predictably in Renoir — descended off the shoulder, suggesting the fruits of ample femininity to the artist’s ever-ogling gaze.’ Elsewhere he has the impertinence to state that Renoir never credited women with ‘any brains’. One longs for the offended dead to rise from their graves when the living proclaim such nonsense.

But if Rubin’s rambles are only a pretext for showing some feel-good pictures on a subject sure to appeal to the Christmas market, why not? He has selected plenty of familiar favourites but also some delightful novelties, among them Renoir’s ‘Sleeping Girl with Cat’, Mary Cassatt’s ‘Little Girl in a Blue Armchair’, the mongrel in Manet’s ‘The Artist (Marcellin Desbout- in)’; and he shows that even in the most familiar pictures there is often an all too easily overlooked dog or cat waiting to be discovered.

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