Cats in Art – Pretty Faces, Cultural Gauges

“No self-respecting cat wants to be an artist’s model.” – Anonymous

Throughout history, the cat has endured a precarious relationship with humanity. Sometimes feared, more often revered, cats have neither been ignored by humans nor regarded with indifference. These erratic attitudes transcend into visual culture as well. Although artists approach the representation of cats in various ways, portraying them either with detachment or obvious affection, deeper reflections of social truths seethe below the superficial imagery. The appearance of the cat in the world of art moves beyond an interesting form utilized only for decorative purposes; felines serve as semiotic icons and reflect contemporary cultural attitudes within their various manifestations.

Representations of cats in art permeate history, beginning after their domestication in ancient Egypt circa 3,000 BC. By 1,000 BC, the cat embodied Bastet, a solar goddess and daughter of Ra, the most powerful of the deities. Bastet was the musical goddess of happiness, mistress of the hearth and protector of births. This divine association gave felines an elevated place of honor in the landscape of the Egyptian social hierarchy. It was a capital crime to kill a cat in the ancient world. Cats, as holy beings, were also mummified and given sacred burials.

As world power shifted to the West, cats began to appear in Roman art. The Romans had a strong interest in the natural world and wished to bring it into their homes. Cats were often shown within a popular context; their presence was indicative of Roman private life as newly appropriate artistic subject matter. These less formal representations deviated significantly from the traditional iconography, narratives about gods and goddesses or aristocratic portraits of wealthy patrons and their families. The appeal of realistic elements manifested itself in early attempts at shading, such as adding textural dimension to a cat’s fur. Cats were also often seen dining on fish bones discarded from Roman tables. This represents the artists’ desire to depict scenes from domestic life and to display the interrelationship between humans and animals.

After the fall of Rome and the descent of the Middle Ages around 1100 AC, cats fell out of favor. The dominant subject matter in art was centered on religion and representations of Christ, the Virgin Mary, and various saints. Cats were rarely shown in art at this time because of their alliance with witchcraft and connection to the supernatural, and were often killed in Europe. Their dwindling numbers may have contributed to the burgeoning of a rat population, whose fleas brought the Great Plague to Europe in 1348. Cats regained popular favor after their natural skills at controlling the rodent population were realized.

Felines again appeared in art as studies by Leonardo da Vinci. With his penchant for science, da Vinci recorded the corporeal structure and movements of a cat with quick sketches completed in 1517-18. Twenty cats emerge from da Vinci’s abbreviated pen and brushstrokes. Their various poses and feline activities reveal Leonardo’s powers of observation, mastery of technique and immense skill at draftsmanship. Cornelis Visscher’s seventeenth-century Dutch print, “The Big Cat” illustrates a continuing artistic interest in scientific observation.

By the 18th century, cats gained a bit more variety in art. Chardin included a cat amidst a veritable feast in his still-life, “The Ray,” of 1728. The artist was primarily interested in capturing texture and here the cat’s fur provides contrast to the filleted stingray, the oysters he steps upon, and the crude crockery. Again, we glimpse a quiet interior domestic setting; however, the inclusion of a live cat provides the suggestion of movement, action and vivacity to the seemingly calm composition, as well as a subtle humorous element.

Chardin’s cross-channel contemporary, the Englishman William Hogarth, occasionally used cats to lend veracity to a scene, such as the family of barn cats who appear in the foreground of the “Strolling Actresses Dressing in a Barn,” 1738. However, the artist particularly preferred to depict cats as mirror devices reflecting the inner nature of his characters. In plate three of the “Harlot’s Progress,” a cat is seen in a mating position before “Moll the Prostitute.” Likewise in the portrait of the “Graham Children” the cat is seen as an antagonist, hungrily eyeing the caged goldfinch while the elder boy ignorantly interprets the bird’s fear as delight at his music. In each of the above examples, Hogarth uses the cat to expose his viewers to slightly sardonic jokes.

The 19th century brings perhaps the most diversity in artistic representations of cats. There are the traditional associations with sorcery, as in Sir Edward Burne-Jones’s “Clara von Bork” of 1860. The black cat here functions as a witch’s familiar. Concurrently, there was a sector derived out of the Romantic Movement in art, which emphasized sentiment. The politically powerful Cardinal Richelieu has been portrayed in art interrupting a busy work session to gaze affectionately at a litter of playful kittens.

The familial portrait of a “Cat and Kitten” evokes not only the sweetness and affection of a human mother and her baby, but also reflects certain social attitudes as well. In order to counterbalance the increasing instability of modern life, 19th-century society participated in a nostalgic longing for the standard ideals from the previous century in which social positions for men and women were defined on the basis of their gender. Men, as active, industrious workers, were to occupy the public sphere, while women, delegated to a more submissive role, were encouraged to avoid unseemly public attention by embracing their destinies as wives and mothers within a strictly domestic environment.

This attitude of gender subjugation extended into the art world as well. With a few marked exceptions, early 19th-century women were denied formal artistic education and banned from officially practicing the “higher” art of history painting. Acceptable genres for women artists were restricted to portraiture and still-lifes. Thus the portrait of her pet cat “Bunny” by Rosa Brett, however lovingly rendered, can be interpreted as the result of deep social constrictions.

In 19th-century Britain, certain breeds of cats had political connotations. A tabby cat, for example, was regarded as the “cat of the people,” a symbol for the rising power of the middle classes following the Industrial Revolution. As a follower of William Morris, the artist Walter Crane reflects in his “At Home” the democratic context of the Arts and Crafts movement. This school felt that art should be made “by the people and for the people” and not mass-produced on machines. Crane’s realistic portrayal of the common “everyday” tabby symbolizes this return to proletariat artistic production.

With the onset of both the 20th and 21st centuries, cats continue to be popular artistic images. They appear as pop art blobs of color in Andy Warhol’s “A Cat Named Sam” series from the 1950s, or stylized to abstraction with a minimal and yet still recognizable feline form like Pablo Picasso’s “Cat and Bird.” Cat figures permeate all the visual arts; in addition to oil, watercolor and pen and ink felines, there are also cats made from fabric or scrap metal, painted wood and yarn, even clothespins. The image of the cat continues to serve as a valuable and viable gauge of the convergence of cultural ideology and artistic production and as an evocative symbol beyond a superficially beautiful bewhiskered face.