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The Artist's Muse

WebMD Feature from "Country Living" Magazine

By Toni Gardner

Country Living Magazine

Pets help people they bond with become calmer and more creative just by being there.


The presence of a pet has consoled and inspired the creative mind of countless generations of writers, musicians, painters, and poets. Pets have probably befriended artists since crude images first appeared as smudges on the dark walls of caves. Henry James conjured the twists and turns of his novels' scheming inheritance hunters with a cat draped across his shoulders. Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner mulled the concepts of abstract painting while walking their dogs across open fields. The notoriously finicky founder of New York City Ballet, George Balanchine, reportedly declared of a friend's cat, "At last, a body worth choreographing for."

Pets perform a vital role as company for people, and often they do their jobs extremely well. They can induce a level of comfort that reaches deep inside, stirring artists' abilities to express and articulate their innermost emotions. Pets are both models and facilitators for liberating thought. Their emotions exist without artifice — at once elemental and pure, elegant and clear. The gentle presence of a pet's steady breathing and the relaxed acceptance they exhibit while curling up at our feet encourage us to let go of our inhibitions and pretenses and lead the creative spirit to fresh spheres of conceptualization. At the artistic core lies an expression that wants out, but one that can be exceedingly difficult to reach. Pets can ease artists into themselves.

That is the ideal scenario for pets as muses. But they can also become maddening distractions. Cats, for example, seem to embody the need to sprawl across the most important papers on the desk because they know this is where we place our closest focus. Charles Dickens is said to have had a cat that would swat its paw at his candle, snuffing it out as he attempted to write at night. Dogs may read the clock better than humans can: When meal or walk time arrives, they insist on punctual delivery. But a recalcitrant pet may spur a critical artistic decision. Photographer William Wegman was already a working when he acquired his first Weimaraner, Man Ray. It was only because the squirming puppy was constantly underfoot that Wegman began using him as a subject for his photography, thereby initiating Wegman's major body of work.

Apart from the sheer pleasure of their company, pets also inspire artists directly as subjects for their works. Still-life paintings through the ages are enlivened by such devices as, for example, a cat slinking toward a platter of food. And cats, dogs, ferrets, birds, and other pets often stand in as symbols of domesticity, fertility, prosperity — even treachery. Musical compositions draw from animal actions, as in Domenico Scarlatti's delicate "Cat Fugue" or Igor Stravinsky's catlike clarinets in "Berceuses du Chat." Animals are frequently employed as metaphors in literary works: Colette's cats, James Thurber's dogs Poe's raven, Jack London's dogs, Keats's nightingale — the list is endless.

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