Cats Encyclopedia

Arty Cats

by Vicky Cox & David Baird




The true story of how cats
have shaped the course of art over the
centuries. Who would have thought
that the inspiration behind Bonnard
portraying his wife bathing was his cherished
black Tom, or that the Mona Lisa's enigmatic
smile was the therapeutic result of stroking a
sleepy tabby?
Here is the story of the cat as artistic muse, captured in hitherto unknown masterpieces by the great artists of their time.

Yorkshire-born artist Vicky Cox has had her work exhibited in Poland, Sweden, the United States and Britain. She lives in London.

David Baird has written books on subjects as diverse as Shakespeare, film, chocolate and golf. He lives near Cambridge in England.










The Italian Renaissance and Sandro Botticelli go hand-in-hand. His paintings, often featuring beautiful women clad in diaphanous costumes, have all sorts of allegorical and philosophical meanings. But this one is thought to be based on a 'real' story concerning a sea captain, a ship's cat and
a young woman's chest!
One night en voyage a frightful storm caused the sea to boil and the ship's cat, a favourite with captain and crew, disappeared believed washed overboard. A young female passenger learned of the event and for several days secretly searched the vessel for the poor creature. Eventually one dark still night she heard a sound different from the usual creaking of the hull and traced it to an unused cabin. There she discovered the terrified cat, who had crept into a wooden chest during the storm and had got locked in. She reunited the captain with his pet and when his eyes met hers .. .well, you can imagine the rest.
This decorated panel was discovered as the spalliera of a cassone (back of a cabin chest) painted by the artist friend of the captain who loved the romantic story. The young woman is depicted as Venus born from the sea, the cat is the ship's cat and the captain is represented by Mars to the left of Venus. The maiden is offered a sailcloth to catch the breeze representing safe passage to terra firma, and the scattered wild roses represent the memory of an onboard romance. And all because of a scaredy cat.



In Leonardo da Vinci's notebooks it is written: 'If at night your eye is placed between the light and the eye of a cat, it will see the eye look like fire'. The artist, also an inventor and very much ahead of his time, attempted to illustrate this phenomenon in a painting. He selected a suitable cat and arranged for a sitting with its owner, a Florentine woman called Lisa. When the cat dropped off to sleep Leonardo lit a candle. The plan was that Lisa would pinch the cat to wake it at the very moment the candle was snuffed out. Theoretically the cat's eyes would reflect the fire which Leonardo planned to capture in paint. Unfortunately things didn't run quite so smoothly. On being pinched the cat leapt into the air. knocked over Leonardo's palette and flew out of the window, never to be seen again. The resulting painting was done from memory as compensation to Lisa for her lost cat. Her expression is said to have captured the moment perfectly.



Michelangelo was at the stage of sketching the outlines in charcoal for the Sistine Chapel ceiling frescoes, to be 'coloured in' at a later date. To facilitate the work, a series of scaffolds and plank runways were constructed for the master and his assistants. A witness has left testimony that he saw a cat roll in charcoal dust and then stretch itself out on the end of a plank for a snooze. Michelangelo, filled with creative enthusiasm, sprang onto the opposite end of the plank, inadvertently catapulting the cat into the air like a circus tumbler. It hit the ceiling, leaving a full frontal impression in charcoal before falling to the ground. Later Michelangelo faithfully coloured in his outlines. On stepping back to view his work the great Renaissance master was aghast. Perplexed by this strange addition, he hurriedly concealed the image of the cat with a painting of Adam, which was much more to the Pope's liking.



Holbein was arguably the best portrait painter of the early sixteenth century. He was the official painter to the English court, chosen for his unique skill at capturing the character of his subjects. There exist many examples of his portraits of Henry VIII, his various queens and also his ministers. Here is one of his less well-known works, a portrait of Sir Thomas More's cat circa 1527. Seen against the same background as the better-known portrait of its owner, the proud feline sports the chain of office of Lord Chancellor which Sir Thomas held. Some scholars say that if viewed from a certain angle the cat takes on the features of Sir Thomas More. Perhaps Holbein employed the same tricksy technique that he used in his later painting The Ambassadors (1533), where a skull appears if the painting is viewed from a particular perspective.
Some say the King was never able to discover the correct angle, but came to view More himself as a sly cat which may have had some bearing upon his execution in 1535.



One of the strangest painters was Giuseppe Arcimboldo, who used all manner of objects, including food, to make his weird and wonderful paintings. It is thought that the inspiration for his unique approach to art hit him whilst sitting in his favourite trattoria one sunny day. Alarmed by a sudden crash, he spilled his entire meal onto his lap. The cause of the commotion became apparent as an alley cat emerged from a pile of disturbed dustbins, its wet fur covered with rotting and discarded salad leaves, bruised fruits, peelings and withered flowers. 'Magnificent!' thought Arcimboldo. He locked the image firmly in his mind and rushed home to reproduce it in paint. Delighted with the result, Arcimboldo continued to experiment, playing with his food at restaurant tables. He soon discovered that by manipulating a variety of fruits and vegetables he could create wonderfully evocative portraits...and then eat them! This gave rise to the saying 'you are what you eat'!



Frans Hals, the celebrated seventeenth-century portrait painter, didn't always get the results that he set out to achieve. On one memorable occasion he employed a new model for a serious commission. The model, an inexperienced young man, donned the apparel of a dashing cavalier and took his pose for the long session. The painter's instructions were emphatic: 'under no circumstances are you to move keep a dignified and solemn expression'. Keen and professional, the model tried to carry out these simple instructions, but it wasn't quite as easy as it sounded the artist's cat had snuggled up in the wide brim of his hat, and from time to time would stretch and change position. As the cat was dark-coated against a dark background, the great Dutch artist failed to see the bete noir. The only giveaway was that each time it moved, its tail flicked under the model's nose, causing a mirthful tickling sensation. The hapless model found it impossible to sustain a serious expression. The result captured on canvas is a smiling young cavalier and not at all the picture that Hals originally had in mind!



The Spanish painter Velazquez was considered by many to be the greatest portraitist of his time. That said, he certainly had some remarkably unattractive models in his capacity as court painter in Madrid. After encountering King Philip IV and his notoriously plain family, he travelled to Italy in search of beauty. There he discovered the works of Titian and Michelangelo and was incredibly envious of their handsome subjects. On his return home he stumbled into his bedroom only to discover that nobody had remembered to feed his cat whilst he was away. And from the feathers scattered over the room it seemed that the only thing that the poor wretch had eaten in the last two weeks was a white dove. Filled with guilt, Velazquez immediately set about earning enough money to buy his hungry cat a slap-up dinner.
The resulting painting, Venus, at her Mirror, is shown here. With heightened sensibilities after his exposure to the beauties of Italy, Velazquez could not bring himself to paint the unattractive features of his model, so the mirror remains blurred and we see her only appealing asset. The angelic cat, having taken on the characteristics of its recently consumed victim, sits quietly by.



Paint Madame seated on a swing being pushed by a Bishop and place me on the ground in a position where I can see her legs', instructed the Baron de Saint-Julien when he commissioned Fragonard to paint this picture. The artist tried and tried to get the right effect but he just couldn't get any life into the picture. 'Imagine, Madame, that the statue before you is a cat that you wish to shoo away!'
Madame swung and let her shoe fly off in the direction of the statue. The cat image made all the difference, for she loved to taunt animals. Fragonard captured the moment in paint. Like a single pink rose, the petticoats of the cruel Madame flutter in the breeze as she swings with gay abandon.
'No, no, no!' exclaimed the Baron.'It will have every animal lover believing Madame to be unkind! You must change it immediately.'
Fragonard reluctantly made the alterations on another version of the painting, while the original, with its strange cat-shaped statue, was hidden away in the artist's private collection. And there the evidence remains, picked out in a shaft of Rococo sunlight a careless young woman kicking off her shoe aimed at a poor cat! You will see that the artist has painted the swing ropes as frayed. Madame, you are in for a fall!



Francisco Goya, the great eighteenth-century Spanish court painter, suffered from severe deafness which caused him no end of trouble. On one occasion he was commissioned to create a sketch for a tapestry to hang on the walls of a charitable institution. For his subject he took a popular game played by village women and children, called 'Pussy in the Air'. They would choose a good-tempered cat and, taking the edges of a blanket, they would toss it in the air the object of the game being to keep the cat airborne for as long as possible. It was later pointed out to the elderly painter that the commission was for an animal protection organisation. Goya hastily covered up his mistake, replacing the flying cat with a puppet effigy. He renamed his painting El Pelele (The Mannequin).



The National Gallery in London holds a fine collection of paintings by the artist Joseph Mallord William Turner, including one unfinished work circa 1835-40 known in art circles as Margate from the Sea. This painting certainly incorporates all of Turner's fascination with light, air, water and atmospheric conditions but whether or not the location is actually Margate is anyone's guess. Perhaps the name of the painting refers not to the English coastal town, but to the artist's feline friend also called Margate. Turner is believed to have rescued the luckless cat after its former owner threw it, tied up in a hessian sack, from the end of the pier. Amazingly the cat managed to claw its way free of the bag and paw its way to the surface before the artist fished it from the waves. The event was captured on a canvas, shown here. Could it be that this recently discovered painting, rather than the one in the National Gallery, is the true Margate from the Sea?



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