In GREAT anticipation of my visit to the Worcester Art Museum in order to see their big summer show, Meow: A Cat–Inspired Exhibition (featuring cats-in-residence!) I have curated my own little digital exhibition, as I have a very large (digital) folder full of cat paintings.I could feature fifty paintings here, but I have restricted myself to seven, ok maybe nine. In chronological order, with commentary:
Hans Süss von Kulmbach (German, Kulmbach ca. 1480–1522 Nuremberg), Girl Making a Garland, c. 1508, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; John de Critz, the “Tower” Portrait of Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton, imprisoned following the Essex Rebellion in 1601 with his cat Trixie. Buccleauch Collection, Boughton House.
Here we have enclosed portraits of remembrance and appeal: Southampton wants to get out of the Tower, and ultimately King James will release him. Cats are not pets in the pre-modern era, so typically they are depicted in the background, disassociated from humans and being cats: eyeing something to eat, chasing something, lying about. But here we have some very close-up, still, companion cats: unusual. The Southampton portrait and the significance of the cat has been dissected many, many times: my favorite analysis is here.
Samuel van Hoogstraten, A View through a House, 1662, Dyrham Park © National Trust; Francis Sartorius, Psyche. A White Persian Cat, 1787, Fenton House © National Trust; J. M. W. Turner, Study of a Sleeping Cat, 1796-97, Tate Britain.
In the background and close-up: I just love “doorway” perspective paintings, the cat is kind of incidental in the Hoogstraten painting, but it does indicate how dogs are much more prominently portrayed before 1800! My favorite cats are neither white nor Persian, but somehow Psyche appeals to me. Maybe it is just the exemplary rendering of fur. The early Turner watercolor is just one example of the expansive subgenre of sleeping cats.
Unidentified Artist, Girl with a Gray Cat, c. 1840, Karolik Collection, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Andrew L. von Wittkamp, Black Cat in a Chair, 3rd quarter of the Nineteenth Century, Karolik Collection, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Theophile Alexandre Steinlen, Cat in Summer, 1909, Worcester Art Museum; Eric Ravilious, Edward Bawden in his Studio, 1930.
The nineteenth century is the golden age of cat paintings: cats move into the foreground, and even displace dogs in domestic settings (I think; but I could be biased). Certainly the American folk artists of the first half of the century loved cats–they are nearly omnipresent in the works of Zedidiah Belknap and Joseph H. Davis. Not only are they a fixture in the home, but also a subject of serious scrutiny, even preoccupation: so many Steinlen cats. I’m finishing up with another artist’s cat, featured in Eric Ravilious’s study of Edward Bawden in his Studio, from 1930. This is not the most aesthetically pleasing depiction of a cat, perhaps, but as every cat owner (companion? host? feeder?) knows, it is a very characteristic one.