John McEwen

Pets’ corner in the studio

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.

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