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The Curious Fates of Famous Artists’ Pets

Dante Gabriel Rossetti's illustrated poem mourning his pet wombat (November 6, 1869), pen on paper (via British Museum/Wikimedia)
Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s illustrated poem mourning his pet wombat (November 6, 1869), pen on paper (via British Museum/Wikimedia)

Some artists glorify their furry studio assistants, like cat-lover Paul Klee immortalizing feline faces in his modernist shapes, or David Hockney and his whole painting oeuvre devoted to his dachshunds. Other pets are not so lucky, and not just Orville, the cat turned into a helicopter by Bart Jansen (although who knows what cats desire for their afterlives), or the cat of artist Tinkebell, made into a purse (to be fair, not just for spectacle, but a comment on the ease with which we use other animals for leather).

There’s a whole history of woe for the pets of famous artists, especially when the creative types decided no ordinary cat or dog would do, and brought exotic creatures into their urban lives, or chose a rather macabre tribute to their animal lives. We recently shared the sad tale of a cat that fell in a tub of goldfish in 1747, drowned, and was extolled in poems and paintings. Here are a few more stories of art, pets, and misfortune.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Wombat

Dante Gabriel Rossetti's drawing of Mrs. Morris and a wombat (1869), pen and brown ink over graphite on paper (via British Museum/Wikimedia)
Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s drawing of Mrs. Morris and a wombat (1869), pen and brown ink over graphite on paper (via British Museum/Wikimedia)

Kate Horowitz at Mental Floss wrote an excellent article on the star-crossed romance of Pre-Raphaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti and a wombat. Exhuming his wife from her grave in order to retrieve some poems is not the most curious anecdote about Rossetti, as he was absolutely obsessed with the Australian marsupial to the point of calling the wombat “a joy, a delight, a madness.” He often convened his friends at the Regent’s Park Zoo wombat exhibition, which he called the “Wombat’s Lair,” yet he wanted a furry companion of his own.

Thanks to Charles Jamrach who was supplying exotic pets to the elite of Victorian London, Rossetti owned at various times a kangaroo, owl, armadillo, llama, and toucan. He got his wombat in 1869, calling it Top — a not so coy dig at his mistress Jane Morris’s hapless husband who was nicknamed Topsy. (You can see a portrait of “Mrs. Morris” with the wombat from 1869 above, both decked out in haloes.)

London is no place for a wombat, and at the age of two, Top died of illness. Rossetti had the body taxidermied for display in his home. There are reports that he got a second wombat, and an 1871 portrait by William Bell Scott may show Rossetti with a new wombat on his lap (or, as some have speculated, a woodchuck). Top got the biggest send-off, with Rossetti drafting a eulogy (shown at the top of this post), with the artist bent over in tears before the prone wombat, a Victorian tomb in the background, and these words below:

I never reared a young Wombat
To glad me with his pin-hole eye,
But when he most was sweet & fat
And tail-less; he was sure to die!

Vilma Lwoff-Parlaghy’s Lion

The grave of Goldfleck the lion at Hartsdale Pet Cemetery (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
The grave of Goldfleck the lion at Hartsdale Pet Cemetery (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Among the tributes to beloved pets in Hartsdale Pet Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York, is a small, white monument joined by a stone lion. On this unusual grave is carved: “Beneath this stone is buried the beautiful young lion Goldfleck whose death was sincerely mourned by his mistress princess Lwoff-Parlaghy. New York 1912.”

Princess Elisabeth Vilma Lwoff-Parlaghy was a portrait painter from Hungary who gained her royal title through a brief marriage to a Russian prince. Her art of New York society in the early 20th century is mostly now forgotten, although her 1916 “Blue Portrait” of Nikola Tesla is often cited as the only painting for which the famed inventor posed. While she was in Manhattan, she garnered much attention for the menagerie kept in her Plaza Hotel suite, which included an ibis, alligators, an owl, and a bear.

The Hatching Cat blog has a thorough investigation into the lion cub now buried at Hartsdale, which much like Rossetti’s wombat died young due to illness. The story goes that the princess noticed the lion at the Barnum & Bailey circus (or Ringling Brothers, as Hartsdale states), but the owners wouldn’t give him up. She asked Daniel E. Sickles, a Civil War hero she had recently painted, to inquire, and after he received the lion (the war hero being someone the circus couldn’t turn down) he gifted him to the princess. Alas, Goldfleck’s life in captivity was brief, although she gave him a grand funeral with a formal wake in which his body was draped in flowers, followed by the internment at Hartsdale Pet Cemetery.

Salvador Dalí’s Ocelot

Salvador Dalí and his ocelot Babou (1965) (photo by Roger Higgins, via Library of Congress/Wikimedia)
Salvador Dalí and his ocelot Babou (1965) (photo by Roger Higgins, via Library of Congress/Wikimedia)

Another exotic cat to be claimed by an artist was Salvador Dalí’s ocelot Babou. While Dalí was seen with exotic animals like an anteater in Paris in 1969 as sort of performance art stunts, Babou was actually a pet, traveling with him to dinner engagements and on a luxury ocean liner. According to the Telegraph, he once told a concerned fellow diner at a Manhattan restaurant that Babou was just an ordinary house cat he’d “painted over in an op art design.” It’s not clear what Babou’s ultimate fate was, although the wild animal didn’t seem thrilled to be kept on a leash. Daisy Woodward at Another magazine quotes Dalí’s friend, actor Carlos Lozano, who stated in his memories that he “only saw the ocelot smile once, the day it escaped and sent the guests at the Meurice scurrying like rats for cover.”

Babou wasn’t the only Dalí pet to have a rather grim existence. Milan Kundera in his book 1988 Immortality has an anecdote about Dalí and his wife Gala debating how to attend to their pet rabbit during a long trip. I can’t find this confirmed anywhere aside from the book, but according to Kundera, the following day Gala made lunch and revealed after it was consumed that it was the rabbit. Kundera writes:

He got up from the table and ran to the bathroom, where he vomited up his beloved pet, the faithful friend of his waning days. Gala, on the other hand, was happy that the one she loved had passed into her guts, caressing them and becoming the body of his mistress. For her there existed no more perfect fulfillment of love than eating the beloved.

Le Corbusier’s Dog

Le Corbusier's copy of Don Quixote made from the skin of his dog Pinceau (screenshot from Catherine de Smet's 'Le Corbusier: un architecte et ses livres' on Google Books)
Le Corbusier’s copy of Don Quixote made from the skin of his dog Pinceau (screenshot from Catherine de Smet’s ‘Le Corbusier: un architecte et ses livres’ on Google Books)

Unlike most listicles that purport to have unknown facts about a famous person, ArchDaily’s 50 Things You Didn’t Know About Le Corbusier actually does have a rather surprising morsel. The architect and artist had a schnauzer named Pinceau (brush in French), and after the dog’s death Le Corbusier commissioned a copy of Don Quixote bound in Pinceau’s skin.

According to Nicholas Fox Weber’s Le Corbusier, the architect “at great expense, had the dog’s body skinned and tanned. He also had his skull preserved, with a spring mechanism in the jaw.” Weber adds that Le Corbusier used a taxidermist “a short walk from Le Corbusier’s old digs on the rue Jacob,” which, while it isn’t stated, might have been the still-operating Deyrolle taxidermy and curiosity shop on Rue du Bac.

As a sort of canine anthropodermic bibliopegy, the dog book is a bit unsettling, although it seems to be made out of love for the dog. Le Corbusier apparently cherished the furry tome, as Catherine de Smet in Le Corbusier: un architecte et ses livres notes that its cover got rather frayed over the years due to it being touched.

Charles Dickens’s Cat

The letter opener made from Charles Dickens' cat (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
The letter opener made from Charles Dickens’s cat, on view at the New York Public Library (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Le Corbusier certainly wasn’t the only person to turn his favorite animal companion into a tactile object after its death. It would be a stretch to call Charles Dickens a visual artist, but for his distinct tribute to his cat Bob, he deserves some place in the pantheon of avant-garde creation. When the cat died in 1862, he had Bob’s paw attached to a letter opener. If one were to use the letter opener, it would be necessary to grasp the detached paw in a sort of posthumous handshake.

Bob wasn’t the only Dickens pet to get a taxidermy homage; his raven Grip, who appeared in his Barnaby Rudge serial, is on view at the Free Library of Philadelphia, and is said to have inspired Edgar Allan Poe’s “Raven.” And Dickens loved Bob, even though the cat would sometimes snuff out the author’s candles when he didn’t receive enough attention.

The letter opener is part of the Berg Collection at the New York Public Library, which is not shy about displaying the odd object. It was on view in the 2012–13 Charles Dickens: The Key to Character and the 2011–12 Celebrating 100 Years exhibitions. An oft-attributed Dickens quote asks: “What greater gift than the love of a cat?” And why should attachment to an animal end after death? Although, we all process the end of that mortal relationship quite differently.

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