You can hate them, you can love them, but there is no doubt that cats are present in almost every sphere of our lives - meaning in art, too. Some might even say that cat art is a phenomenon which came to be with the arrival of the internet; nowadays we are overwhelmed with videos, pictures, vines, snaps, memes, boomerangs and emojis of kittens to the point where actual works of the arts dedicated to these animals and exhibited in museums and galleries around the world were bound to happen sooner rather than later. Come to think of it, are there even other animals in art at all? So typical of cats to rule the kingdom on their own. However, the beginning of their reign dates way back in history, meaning that human beings were always quite obsessed with the felines, most notably through strong symbolism and even mythology.
Today, we’ve got some of the most important modern and contemporary artists painting, sculpting, filming, photographing and digitally-creating cat culture, for instance, riding on the rich, thousands of years long legacy of cat art.
To understand the craze and our fascination with felines, we must dig into the ways we’ve created an entire culture around them over the course of centuries. They are a part of practically every nation’s traditions and history for a splendid variety of reasons, one of the biggest being - superstition. Think about how their pelts are being used for the practice of witchcraft, or how people in Switzerland make blankets out of them, as folk remedies believed to help with rheumatism. Of course, the most famous example of feline influence can be found in ancient Egypt, where cats were considered sacred animals. They even fascinated the Romans, so much that they are believed to be the ones who brought them to Europe as pets.
While cat was most commonly found in the Western societies, they are also a large part of the Japanese culture, where the maneki neko cat is a symbol of good fortune, for instance. In fact, several ancient religions believed these animals are exalted souls, the knowledgable companions of the human race that, however, must remain silent and not influence decisions made by humans. According to some writings, kittens were also appreciated in Islam, with some claiming the prophet Muhammed had a favorite cat, called Muezza. In Norse mythology, the goddess of love, beauty and fertility Freyja is depicted as riding a chariot drawn by felines. What’s interesting is that there are many negative superstitions related to kittens as well, in many cases, starting with the belief that a black cat crossing your path would bring you bad luck (although in the UK, this is considered good luck!). Finally, you can often hear that cats have multiple lives as well, and according to the country you’re in, the number of lives varies from nine in most countries, to seven in Italy, Germany, Greece and Brazil, for example, and six in Turkish and Arabic traditions.
With such a long-standing presence in our history, it should come as no surprise that cats in art are more than a frequent sight. The earliest discovered proof of the human race interacting with domesticated kittens dates back to 7500 BC, when a joint tomb of a human and feline skeleton was discovered in Cyprus some 30 years ago. Over the next few millenniums, they became an important figure in many societies, most notably in the aforementioned ancient Egypt. Known as the “mau”, they were depicted in almost every painting from the period, celebrated for their grace, poise and the ability to kill snakes such as cobras, thus serving as the protectors of man. They were even mummified after death, just like people. Apart from regularly appearing as totem-like sculptures, they were also immortalized through mythology: the goddess Mafdet, the deification of justice and execution, was a lion-headed goddess.
Through the Middle Ages, cat art mostly showed them as a force to be reckoned with, rather than the cuddly balls of fur - they were hunters who defended against mice, large birds, other larger animals and even other cats. It was during the Renaissance that they enjoyed a more kitty-like depictions, becoming the nonchalant observers of the human activity and enjoying affection and attention from their owners. Some of the more famous paintings from the period, such as the 1450 Petrus Christus Madonna and Child contains an image of a cat, though not quite visible at first glance. The obsession continued through the Baroque period as well, all the way to Impressionism, a style which particularly contributed to the beauty of their representations - here, we have Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s Portrait of Julie Manet from 1887 as a fine example of that. With the advent of the avant-garde movements, traditional art was being taken over by innovative techniques and a variety of unusual topics, but the felines somehow managed to retain their place and stay part of the game - they even expanded their presence to other media too.
Apart from Egypt, one of the nations that was, and still is, highly influenced by felines is Japan, where today we have cat cafes, cat shrines, cat tourism, cat day, cat island. It is an adoration that has been going on for centuries now, beginning the arrival of kittens some thousand years ago from China. They were adopted as rodent killers and were warmly welcomed on farms and inside the houses, though not yet as pets, and almost immediately became a part of arts and culture. In 1602 for example, after a long period of living the aristocrat life, they were set free after a government decree in order to catch the rodents destroying the silk worm industry. This lead to their rapid expansion in number and a larger impact on artists too, as they were everywhere. They were most popularly and most massively reproduced on ukiyo-e woodblock prints during the Edo period (1603-1868), along with other popular cat art topics, capturing their appearance and behavior - chasing and playing with their prey, sleeping in various cute positions, licking themselves etc. Another frequent sight were cats dressed and acting as people, especially when they would impersonate famous kabuki actors, in the 19th century. They are also popular as sculptures and figurines, like the aforementioned maneki neko, or netsuke, tiny carvings used to fasten corded wallets and boxes attached to kimono.
Leonardo da Vinci, an avid cat lover himself, once famously said: “The smallest feline is a masterpiece.” Indeed, while we can’t say there’s an actual “cat art” movement, there are many artists who, at one point in their career or another, dedicated one or several of their artwork to the furry animal. Most of them were, of course, cat owners and it’s not hard to guess their pets hung around their studios enough for these painters, sculptors, photographers and print makers to get inspired. The variety of scenery and atmospheres in which these kittens were presented to the world truly is splendid, so much so that it’s hard for us to decide which one we like best.
The 19th century Paris, in particular the bohemian Montmartre district, was proud of a famous entertainment establishment called Le Chat Noir, aka The Black Cat. Now considered to be the first modern cabaret, it was a proper a nightclub where the patrons sat at tables and drank alcoholic beverages while being entertained by a variety show on stage. Perhaps even more famous than the club itself was the poster of a proud-standing black cat created by Théophile Alexandre Steinlen, which promoted a tour of the cabaret entertainment troupes to other cities at the peak of its popularity and was later used in the humorous journal that the cabaret published until 1895. Le Chat Noir is now an iconic cat art picture of retro culture.
In 1939, Spain was in the midst of the Civil War and Pablo Picasso had just lost his mother. His anger was present in many of his paintings of the period, and in a few to come, and one of those artworks is the one we see here. This is definitely not a typical cat art piece, as most of them show the animals as the sweet, fluffy creatures. This one appears to be showing it during a full-on attack on a bird, caught in the middle of biting its head off in rage, symbolically representing Franco’s oppression and the powerless people under siege. Picasso focused on other animals with ferocious expressions as well later on, giving them almost human faces and quite dark color palette, in order to depict the horrors of war as accurately as possible.
In 1954, Andy Warhol privately printed a limited edition artist’s book dedicated entirely to cats. In it, there is no text, just lithographs and calligraphy done by Julia Warhola, the artist’s mother. The lithographs were produced on Arches brand watermarked paper using Warhol's blotted line technique. This original cat art edition was limited to 190 numbered copies and most of them were given by Warhol as gifts to clients and friends. Both he and his mother had a passion for cats and they were all named Sam except for one called Hester. They had so many of them that friends remember them always giving away kittens. Although the title suggest there are 25 kittens, there is only 16. This was one of the rare occasions in which he collaborated with his mother before becoming an international superstar.
One of the most famous photographs of Salvador Dalí was taken by photographer Phillippe Halsman in 1948, under the name Dali Atomicus. It took 28 tries in total in order to achieve the perfect flying image of the artist and three cats, in the manner of the painter’s own painting, Leda Atomica, which appears in the photograph as well. There’s also an easel, a chair, a stepstool and water thrown from a bucket, all flying through the air together with the artist and the animals, which were also thrown in the scenario by Dali’s assistants. Dali and Halsman first met in the Surrealist circle in Paris in the 1930s and they often collaborated on photographic projects over the next decade.
One of the large double paintings from a series which David Hockney began creating in 1968, the 1970 Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy depicts his fancy friends, fashion designer Ossie Clark and textile designer Celia Birtwell, with their cat Percy. Hockney chose to paint them in their bedroom because he liked the light there, and it obviously suited the kitten as well, as its whiteness simply stands out. We can’t see the animal’s face, as it is apparently more interested in what’s going on outside the window that the fact one of the most celebrated painters is immortalizing it. It was later revealed by the artist that the cat’s posture fit perfectly into the concepts, as cats often do what they please and are not bossed around by their owners.
Like most of the artworks made by Jeff Koons, Cat on a Clothesline is a literal interpretation of its name. It is indeed a cat, inside a sock, hung on a clothesline with two clothespins and surrounded by two flowers. He was inspired by postcards of kittens suspended in socks, which is why he made these outsized polyethylene works as part of his Celebration series. Interestingly enough and following Koons’s obsession with symbolism and religious iconography, this cat art series was structured as a crucifixion, to mix spirituality and preschool joyousness. Talking about the piece, the artist said: ”To me it's like a contemporary crucifixion. But it's also this cute little cat, that's just in a sock. You can also think of it as a womb-like situation, feeling that sense of protection.”
Let me just point out that this was the year of 1990, way before our current obsession with cat videos online. Chris Marker, a video artist, made a short film of his own cat, Guillaume-en-Egypte (yes, that’s his name), snoozing over an electronic keyboard while listening to music, as the title of the video suggests, in French. It’s not just any music - it is the jazz piano theme by Federico Mompou, because Guillaume has ”a special crush” on him, according to the artist. This short cat art film by Marker was one of five animal-related movies that comprised his Bestiaire series.
A Russian street-art group known for their provocative and politically charged works of performance art, better known as Voina, staged a celebration of International Workers’ Day on May 1st 2007 with a performance titled Mordovian Hour. How did cats fit in? Their act consisted of throwing live ones at the McDonald’s restaurant in Moscow, in order ”to break up the drudgery of workers’ routine day”. The animals were homeless but were eventually feasting on the restaurant meals, if that could be our consolation. Two plain-dressed cops were on the site at the time of this curious cat art performance, keeping two cats as evidence and arresting Voina member Pyotr Verzilov. We believe that the kittens were eventually released from custody too.
Balthus was a controversial artists known for his depictions of young girls in provocative poses, somewhere between innocence and knowledge. What’s interesting is that many of these works include enigmatic cats, possibly stand-ins for the artist himself. Balthus adopted a stray cat he called Mitsou when he was eleven years old, dedicating an entire series of pen-and-ink drawings to him. The German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, a family friend, was so fascinated by these cat art drawings that he had them published in 1921 in a book Mitsou, for which he provided a preface in French. The artist didn’t stop depicting kittens then; they remained a constant throughout his career, including in his self-portrait The King of Cats, painted in 1935, or the 1949 The Cat of La Méditerranée.
What do we see in this 1928 cat art painting by Paul Klee? We see the attempt of yet another modernist artist to use line, shape and color for their own sake, rather than describing something visible. He was on a quest to play with perception, which is why the bird in the painting seems as though it is located inside the cat’s head, rather than in front of it, making us think it is literally on cat’s mind. While this might seem like a stressful situation, surprisingly for both participants, the color palette used by Paul Klee is calm and light, almost evoking a child’s drawing and creativity. He also used simple shapes, like ovals for the cat’s eyes and pupils and triangles for ears and nose, and nevertheless achieved a kind of tension that kittens tend to provoke sometimes, especially in hunt.
Editors’ Tip: The Cat in Art
The Cat in Art is both full of surprises and hauntingly familiar, as the felines play and pounce and sleep and purr their way through 170 great art masterpieces from the ancient world to the present. What cats represent to us in life, they bring to art: elegance and grace; domestic tranquility; symbols of sensuality and mischievousness. Here are paintings by Van Eyck, Raphael, Leonardo, Bruegel, Rembrandt, Chardin, Gainsborough, Manet, Renoir, Bonnard, Gauguin, Matisse, Balthus, Picasso, Warhol, and many others. Sometimes they are the stars of the work, and sometimes they are working their magic from the corners of rooms
Featured image: Salvador Dalí and his pet ocelot. Photograph: Library of Congress. In slider: Cats in the Garden, by Mao Yi, 12th century; Graffiti in Shoreditch, London - C215; Left: Kees von Dongen - Woman With Cat, 1908 / RIght: Georg Baselitz - Cat Head, 1966–67; An artwork by Marion Peck. All images used for illustrative purposes only.