Cats in Art

If you were to be foolish enough to Google ‘Cats in art’ (and I really don’t recommend it) you would get ‘about 37,600,000 results’ – probably more by the time you read this: and a great many would look something like the image below (courtesy of Animal Advocates Alliance).

Any caption would be superfluous.

If you limit the field to ‘Cats in Renaissance art’, you get a mere 2,200,000 hits: however, even without ploughing through all of these (indeed, a little mooching round galleries and museums should do the trick), you quickly come to realise that some Renaissance artists really had trouble with cats (as indeed they did with babies).

I have mentioned before the #notalion phenomenon: the #notacat should be equally well known, since, although not many European painters at the time may have seen a real live lion, there is no excuse for them not understanding the familiar features of the domestic cat.

This is a normal cat, also known as Max. He is helpfully sitting on the TV remote control.

This is not a normal cat, by Annibale Carracci. (Credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

For the purposes of this exercise, the extraordinary creations of medieval illuminators and the idiosyncratic works of Hieronymus Bosch are, of course, excluded.

A musical cat, from MS M.282, fol. 133v in the Pierpont Morgan Library & Museum, New York.

One of Hieronymus Bosch‘s many cats, carrying off his prey while God creates Eve: detail from Bosch’s ‘Garden of Earthly Delights’. (Credit: Prado Museum, Madrid)

But what does one make of this detail by Jan Steen?

Detail from ‘The Life of Man’. Cats’ knees just don’t bend like this, even when being tormented by horrible children. (Credit: Mauritshuis, Den Haag)

It’s all the more strange when you think how good early modern artists were at dogs. Look at these examples:

Dog on the jetty: detail from Carpaccio’s ‘The Arrival in Cologne’ in the St Ursula sequence in the Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice.

Detail from Gabriel Metsu (attrib.), ‘A Young Woman Composing Music, Observed by a Man, with Another Woman Playing the Lute’. (Credit: The National Trust, The Vyne)

And frequently, beautiful dogs and bizarre cats appear in the same painting, or are even interacting:

Detail from Veronese’s ‘Wedding at Cana’, painted for the refectory of San Giorgio Maggiore, Venice, plundered by Napoleon and now in the Louvre, Paris: the aristocratic dog straining slightly at the leash is beautifully observed; the podgy cat has forelegs and paws like a monkey’s.

Detail from Nicolaes de Gyselaer’s ‘Interior of a hall, with Musicians at a table’, c. 1621, in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

So, what is going wrong? The siting of the ears on the head appears to cause difficulties, as in the de Gyselaer above, and in Bernado Strozzi’s ‘Feast in the House of Simon’ (below):

Detail of Strozzi’s painting, in the Gallerie dell’ Accademia, Venice. The dog is great, the cat isn’t …

The other recurring feature is a problem with the features: the cat’s face is either too pointed, or too flat.

Detail from Jacopo Bassano’s ‘Supper at Emmaus’ in the duomo of Citadella, Italy: a flat-faced, malevolent-looking creature.

In Lorenzo Lotto’s strange ‘Annunciation’, the startled cat is almost rat-like in its movements and its tail. (Credit: Civic Museum of Villa Colloredo Mels, Recanati, Italy)

Leonardo’s sketch for a Virgin and Child with a cat also gives the animal a rodent-like appearance. (Credit: The British Museum)

Detail from Hendrick Goltzius’s ‘The Fall of Man’. The cat with unusually small eyes, sitting next to Adam, has a human expression. (Credit: National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.)

How much of this is to do with ambiguity of the response to cats during the early modern period? Unlike the loyal, faithful dog, there were times when the cat was associated with witchcraft and the forces of evil.

Witches and their familiars, from a seventeenth-century woodcut.

In Ghirlandaio’s 1482 fresco of the Last Supper in the monastery of San Marco in Florence, a cat sits on Judas’s side of the table, staring out directly at the viewer and apparently representing the betrayer’s evil soul.

Ghirlandaio had painted a very similar version for the Ognissanti in Florence in 1480 – but it did not include the cat.

And in Dürer’s famous woodcut of 1504, the bulbous-headed cat in profile under the protagonists’ feet is undoubtedly malign:

Albrecht Dürer, ‘Adam and Eve’, where the cat’s sinuous tail echoes the twining of the snake. Though, as we are in Eden, the cat appears to be ignoring the mouse. (Credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

The Met’s web catalogue page provides a further insight: ‘Four of the animals represent the medieval idea of the four temperaments: the cat is choleric, the rabbit sanguine, the ox phlegmatic, and the elk [deer?] melancholic.’ So, as well as being associated with witchcraft, the cat has yellow bile in excess, which leads to anger, and is associated with the element of fire …

My final example of inadequate painting is another Veronese: the huge canvas of ‘The Feast in the House of Levi’, which the painter created in 1573 for a wall of the refectory of the Dominican friary of San Giovanni e Paolo in Venice, to replace a Titian destroyed by fire two years earlier. Famously, it was originally ‘The Last Supper’, but it brought Veronese to the attention of the Inquisition.

Detail from Veronese’s ‘Feast in the House of Levi’, showing Judas (in red), the cat and the dog. (Credit: Gallerie dell’ Accademia, Venice)

The painting was thought to be too frivolous, containing ‘buffoons, drunken Germans, dwarfs and other such scurrilities’, but with one bound Veronese was free: he simply changed the title to another meal recorded in the New Testament, but one less charged with theological significance.

As in the Ghirlandaio above, there is a cat in close proximity to Judas, but instead of (or as well as?) being symbolic, he is an incidental detail in the narrative – trying to paw a dropped bone to safety under the table, he is observed almost benignly by a dog in the foreground who clearly has no inclination to do anything about it. As so often, the dog is well painted, and the cat is implausibly bad.

The cat and the dog.

Of course, all of the above is a bit of a generalisation: there are some well painted cats in the art of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, including a tabby, snuggled up against the Virgin’s work-basket in Rubens’s second ‘Annunciation’, begun in 1610 but not completed until 1628/9, and now in the Rubenshuis in Antwerp.

The descent of Gabriel startles Mary …

… but her cat, a relation of Max (above), is missing the great event.

It’s just that there aren’t enough of them – why not?




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6 Responses to Cats in Art

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