Cats have appeared intermittently in symbolic and sacred art since the time of the ancient Egyptians, but it was not until the 18th century that they were portrayed as domestic pets.
For a long period, Western artists struggled, and largely failed, to capture the elusive nature of felines in drawings and paintings. It was Eastern art that led the way in portraying cats as they really are. In modern times, interpretations of the cat are as broad as artists’ imaginations.
One of the least popular domestic animals in the Middle Ages in Europe, because of its association with wickedness, the cat was poorly represented in European art until the beginning of the modern age.
A few early images of cats are found in medieval carvings in churches and cathedrals, where they can be seen preying on rats and mice around galleries or on misericords. Some of the most beautiful cat illustrations of the Middle Ages occur in bestiaries, illuminated manuscripts describing animals both real and fantastic.
These texts were not medieval field guides but were used to teach moral principles rather than natural history. Cats also turn up in the illustrated margins of medieval Psalters (books of psalms) and books of hours (prayer books).
The great artists of the Renaissance occasionally included cats as a minor detail in their work. In the triptych Garden of Earthly Delights painted by Dutch artist Hieronymus Bosch (c.1450–1516), a spotted cat carrying a rat in its mouth can be found among the crowded allegorical scenes.
In another of Bosch’s works, The Temptation of St. Anthony, a cat emerges from beneath some drapery to seize a fish. With its gaping mouth and long, pointed ears, this animal looks more like a small demon than a cat.
Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) was fascinated by the ways in which animals moved—in a sheet of drawings of various animals (including a small dragon), he sketched cats playing, fighting, washing, stalking, and sleeping. Leonardo also added a cat to his drawing of the Virgin and Child, possibly a study for an intended painting. Here, the infant Christ, seated on his mother’s lap, clutches a cat that is doing its best to struggle free.
The cat in medieval religious paintings—perhaps lurking behind a chair leg or hiding under a table—is usually interpreted as a symbol of sin, such as lust, deceitfulness, and heresy. However, viewing these pictures with a modern eye, it is difficult not to suppose that the artists might have included them simply because cats were a normal part of any domestic scene.
Even if they were not regarded with any particular affection, they were readily available as models. Certainly, the cat romping round an urn in The Wedding at Cana, a painting by the Venetian Paolo Veronese (1528–88) based on one of the miracles of Christ, looks merely playful rather than wicked.
By the 18th century, cats were beginning to gain ground as house pets rather than as just catchers of vermin. As a popular subject for portraits, they still trailed a long way behind dogs and horses, but were given at least passing attention by some of the major artists of the day, particularly in England.
William Hogarth (1697–1764) included a family tabby in his portrait The Graham Children, and in one of his London street scenes a pair of fighting cats, strung up by their tails from a lamppost, are a reminder of the cruelty that was then casually accepted.
George Morland (1763–1804), who specialized in rustic scenes, painted his own, clearly well fed, cat; and the kitten portrayed by master animal painter George Stubbs (1724–1806) is much in demand as a reproduction in the 21st century.
In France, Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732–1806), whose work was much favored among the upper classes, sometimes found cats useful as accessories in portraits of young women.
The 18th century also saw a proliferation of cats in run-of-the-mill portraits by lesser known artists. These cats were often the companions of children, and in scenes intended to be humorous were shown suffering such indignities as being dressed up in dolls’ clothes or made to dance.
Fluffy snow-white cats, similar to today’s Angoras, seem to have been among the most popular models. In the majority of such portraits, although the cats’ fur and features are rendered competently enough, the subtleties of feline character and movement have clearly eluded the artists. The animals remain strangely static and have neither grace nor beauty.
Cats have been important in Eastern art for centuries. Generally treated with great respect in Asia, even throughout the periods when they were disliked and mistrusted elsewhere, cats began to be depicted with sympathy and understanding much earlier in the East than in the West.
Some of the most exquisite cat paintings and prints are those by the artists of 18th- and 19th-century Japan. Executed with the lightest of touches in watercolors on silk and parchment, or printed from woodblocks, these Japanese cats play amid flowers, bat at toys with their paws, get up to mischief, and are petted or scolded by beautiful women.
Awake or asleep, they are very real animals, expressing all the natural feline liveliness and mystique so lacking in European art of the same period.
From about the middle of the 19th century, artists began to look at cats differently, concentrating more on character than fur and whiskers and bringing the animals to life. One of the most celebrated artists of the French Impressionist movement, Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841–1919), successfully painted cats many times.
Despite most of his subjects looking distinctly drowsy—like the tabby in Sleeping Cat—Renoir’s cats still manage to convey the unmistakable self-possession that comes naturally to all felines. Another French artist, Edouard Manet (1832–83), whose work contained elements of both Impressionism and Realism, put his own cat into some of his paintings.
This comfortable cat, the epitome of respectability, is seen, for instance, in La femme au chat, a portrait of Manet’s wife. However, the black cat in Manet’s Olympia, a painting that scandalized the public when first shown in 1863, is part of a very different picture. Standing uneasily with arched back at the feet of a reclining and naked prostitute, it suggests a return to the depiction of cats as a symbol of lust.
As the 19th century moved into its last decades and the post-Impressionist movement gathered momentum, artists continued to be beguiled by the charm and character of cats. Their interpretations were highly individual, although some well-known cat paintings are conventional enough, such as the delightful Mimi et son chat by Paul Gauguin (1846–1903) in which a chubby toddler plays with a ginger and white cat
The cats painted by Henri Rousseau (1844–1910) were mostly big ones—wild-eyed lions and tigers inhabiting exotic, dream world jungles. But Rousseau’s subjects also included more homey animals, such as the stolid looking pet tabbies in The Tiger Cat and Portrait of Pierre Loti.
By the beginning of the 20th century, cats in art saw an even more dramatic change in style. There is nothing reassuringly domestic about The White Cat painted by Pierre Bonnard (1867–1947). This humorously weird creature hunches on exaggeratedly long, stilt like legs, narrowing its eyes to sinister slits.
The German Expressionist painter Franz Marc (1880–1916) superbly captured feline form and movement but using vibrant blues, yellows, and reds and curvy geometric shapes. Pablo Picasso (1881–1973) loved cats and they are a recurring presence in his work, their killer instincts acknowledged in gruesome paintings of cats ripping birds to pieces.
The cat as hunter was a theme explored by other modern artists, including Paul Klee (1879–1940), who made it obvious in Cat and Bird that the stylized cat glaring from the canvas has the thought of a bird very much on its mind.
Andy Warhol (1928–87), leader of the Pop Art movement of the 1960s, was the enthusiastic owner of numerous cats (all apparently sharing the name “Sam”). He was another artist who loved bright colors, and his series of rainbow-tinted cats in various poses, which he painted working from photographs, are among his most popular prints today.
Not all cats in modern art are stylized or unconventional, although some appear in disturbing contexts. For example, the perfectly ordinary cats lolling and prowling around the adolescent girls painted by the French artist Balthus (1908–2001) do much to heighten the erotic atmosphere of the that he called The King of Cats, presenting himself as an arrogantly slouching young man with a massive tabby cat fawning around his legs and a lion-tamer’s whip in handy reach.
But possibly few cat paintings are as unsettling as the one in Girl with Kitten by Lucian Freud (1922 –2011). The girl of the portrait, modeled by Freud’s first wife, Kitty Garman, is rigid with tension and seems to be unaware that she has a stranglehold grip around the neck of her blank-eyed, unresisting kitten.
Alongside such provocative images, “Percy,” the white cat temporarily given that name for the double portrait Mr. and Mrs. Clark and Percy by David Hockney (born 1937), seems to be in a reassuringly normal situation, perched on Mr. Clark’s lap. However, that has not stopped commentators from attaching symbolic meanings to Percy’s presence, including the age-old suggestion of infidelity.
Paintings and drawings of cats have by no means been confined to mainstream art. Cats have long been a favorite subject for illustrators of ephemera such as posters and greetings cards. One of the most prolific cat artists for the popular market in the late Victorian era was Louis Wain (1860–1939).
His vast output of amusing and fanciful cat and kitten paintings for cards, books, and magazines are still much sought after by collectors. Wain’s best-known work typically features anthropomorphized cats wearing clothes, playing games, and generally enjoying a human-style social life.
Another popular illustrator whose work has endured for over a century was the Swiss painter Theophile Steinlen (1859–1923). He often painted cats and made some exquisite naturalistic sketches, but is most famous for his poster art. Steinlen’s Art Nouveau “Le Chat Noir” advertisement for a 19th-century Parisian nightclub and artists’ salon is a familiar icon on tote bags, postcards, and T-shirts.
Cats are still acting as artists’ muses in the 21st century. Conventional, kitsch, weird, and whimsical, they appear in paintings, prints, photographs, and videos. Major art galleries devote exhibitions to “cat art” from all centuries. For a modest fee, any cat owner can commission an animal portraitist to immortalize a favorite pet in any chosen style.
Much fun with felines is also provided by an internet craze for digitally altering world-famous paintings to include a cat. Masterpieces “improved” by the addition of a colossally fat ginger cat range from Leonardo’s Mona Lisa and Botticelli’s Birth of Venus to Salvador Dali’s Dream, in which the surrealist’s leaping, snarling tigers have become something much more benign.