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.










Edouard Manet was something of a rebel and a self-professed liberator of artists from academic constraints. One of his most famous paintings, Le Dejeuner sur I'Herbe, was based, he claimed, on a composition by Raphael. Some say that in Manet's original version of this famous work the 'big cat' became unruly and eventually tried to eat the man wearing the Bohemian hat, to the right of the painting. The cat had to be tranquillised and removed from the sitting so that the artist could finish the painting. The cat's absence did, however, result in the hitherto partially hidden nude woman becoming prominent in the picture. To this day she gazes out of the painting with a vaguely perplexed expression as if contemplating her friend's lucky escape!



Onå day a man was walking along a rue in Paris when he happened upon a ginger cat who looked like a stray. 'Ello puseey', he said in a French accent, 'you look az eef you are lost'.
The cat brushed itself against his leg and then disappeared through a half-open door. The man, not wishing the cat to get trapped, followed it inside, where he stumbled upon three beautiful ballerinas as they sat waiting for their rehearsal to start. The cat launched itself at the young ladies in joyful reunion, only slightly shredding their tutus.
'Oh look', they exclaimed, 'Ziss man 'as found our puseey! 'Sank you very much. 'Ow ever can we repay you?' The story goes that, to show their gratitude to the man who reunited them with their beloved cat, the ballerinas agreed to allow him to sit in on rehearsals from time to time and to sketch what he saw. The man's name was Edgar Degas, and the paintings that he was then able to produce give us a glimpse of the movement, suppleness, grace and beauty of the ballet world.



The artist Cezanne is famous for his beautiful still life paintings and particularly for compositions using fruit. But earlier in his career he was apparently renowned locally for his beautiful paintings of fish and game. It all changed when he was adopted by a stray cat that simply wandered into his studio one day. The artist fell in love with the animal and named it 'Rumplestiltzkin'. Unfortunately, the inquisitive little torn acquired a taste for the artist's props and would devour them before they could be painted. In an effort to thwart his pet's destructive habits, Cezanne began replacing his usual props with citrus and other fruits of which cats are less fond. But curiosity still drove Rumplestiltzkm to leap onto the compositions from time to time in the hope of finding something tasty. This particular painting was to have been titled Still Life with a Fruit Dish, a Jug and Apples, but was imaginatively re-titled . Still Life with a Fruit Dish and Apples after the jug was broken in a kitty attack!



Claude-Oscar Monet created elaborate waterlily pond in his splendid garden at Giverny. Between 1899 and 1900 he painted seventeen views of the pond, maybe more. One story goes that Monet struggled for hours to get the trees just right. He couldn't for the life of him work out why he was having such difficulty with the poplars until he took a closer look. The odd-shaped canopy, peculiar coloured leaves and irregular shaped trunks were in fact cats...dozens of cats that had entered the garden to launch an attack on the fish in the pond! They had all latched on to the trees with their claws like an invading SAS force! He was rather pleased with the finished picture and allowed the cats freedom to come and go in his garden, even providing them with enough cat food to keep them away from his fish.
Unfortunately, when Monet showed this picture at Durand Ruel's gallery in 1900 he was told in no uncertain terms that 'The cats must go!' He systematically painted them out, leaving only the views of the trees, which the public loved.



There are many tales about the great artist Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and this one has a cat attached! Between 1907 and 1911 a woman named Gabrielle Renard served as Renoir's model for a number of paintings dealing with self-adornment. One school of thought has it that the series came about following a sitting where Gabrielle was placed admiring a cat. Unfortunately, as we all know, cats won't always stay still when you want them to. This cat chose its moment and left the scene on hearing the milkman arrive - leaving Gabrielle sitting alone with a rose in her hair, another in her hand and her blouse open - as the artist explained to Mrs Renoir when she stumbled on the scene. This picture, minus the cat and titled simply Gabrielle with a Rose, was a huge hit, whilst the painting that the artist had intended to produce, and which is shown here, remained neglected at the back of Renoir's cupboard. It seems that Gabrielle left the Renoir household shortly after the incident — whether or not the artist's wife had anything to do with her sudden departure is not known.



Look closely at this picture by Impressionist artist Mary Cassatt, and what can you see? A mother and child captured in a moment of tender embrace. But look more closely at their expressions. Can you see relief? The kind of relief that follows trauma perhaps? The sort of trauma that a cat can invoke for instance? Take a look at the other mother in the picture. Behind the shoulder of the young child is a mother cat gently licking her kitten. And why does the kitten look so bedraggled and everyone look so relieved? The kitten had been outside and somehow managed to climb onto the roof. A passing travelling salesman (a purveyor of fine pet foods) offered to climb a ladder to get it down but he fell, launching a bucket of paint into the air and sending it flying all over the yard. The now-empty bucket came down on the tail of the family's peacefully sleeping dog, who leapt into the air with a yelp so loud it scared the kitten who jumped in sheer terror from the rooftop straight into the well where it almost drowned! Everyone had to help lower the now injured salesman down on a rope to haul it out. Thankfully the kitten was saved, and nobody had to buy anything from the salesman in this 'shaggy cat' story!



Nobody could have foretold the events that would unfold in Paris-born Paul Gauguin's life. This painting is believed to represent the major turning point in his artistic career. It was Gauguin's habit to allow stray cats to climb through the window of his tiny attic studio and keep him company while he worked. One day, the artist had just finished a painting and was at the sink washing his dirty brushes when he caught sight of a cat reflected in the water. His gaze fixed upon the reflection, which stared back at him. Suddenly the image in the water was gone and the artist turned to see the cat disappearing through the open window, over the rooftops. In that instant Gauguin saw that the cat encapsulated everything he wanted to be: free from responsibilities and living outside the constraints of society. Gripped by this sudden realization Gauguin gave up his successful career, his marriage, his home... everything. Sixty-three days later he arrived on Tahiti determined to live a more primitive existence, which he did until his death in 1893. This painting remains as a symbol of that transitionary moment, with the artist representing himself as a cat, which leans to see its reflection in a crystal blue lagoon, thousands of miles away from that cramped and squalid studio in Paris....



This is Vincent van Gogh's bedroom at Aries circa 1889, it is one of a series of paintings attempting to capture the differing personalities of the artist and Paul Gauguin, with whom he was working at the time. Van Gogh purchased two little kittens as models, one ginger to represent himself, the other black to represent the dark-haired Gauguin. The kittens were allowed to play around the room, whilst the artist made his sketches.
On this canvas the ginger cat can be seen on the footboard of the bed and at the same time looking in through the window, symbolizing the artist's feelings of alienation and marginalization, whilst the darker cat is shown in the bed and at the same time hiding under it, emphasizing Gauguin's feelings of suffocation in the civilized world and his wish to escape it! The second picture in the series was to have been Van Gogh's chair and cats, but unfortunately he ran out of paint. There was nothing for it but to sell the kittens. The extra money they brought in meant that not only was the artist able to buy some more materials, he could also afford some sunflowers and a new razor which he thought might come in handy one day...



Everyone will be familiar with Georges Seurat's famous Impressionist painting Sunday Afternoon on the Island of the Grande Jatte - an island in the River Seine popular with visitors. Apparently the artist was all set up with his easel, and was about to paint the leisurely scene spread before him, when two beautiful ginger cats caught his eye. The sunlight playing on their dappled coats fascinated Seurat and he attempted to reproduce the effect in paint. And that's how pointillism was born, or so it said. So fond of the finished picture was Seurat that he painted another version, minus cats and in full colour, for public display. This work remained in the artist's own collection, where he kept it hanging in his private study and renamed it Sunday Afternoon on the Island of the Grand Chat.



Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, the celebrated Impressionist painter, is now mainly remembered for his striking illustrations of French cafe life, but this little-known painting captures the moment when a cat took an active role in influencing quite a different art form.
A popular cabaret artiste in late nineteenth-century Paris was Jane Avril who would sing sad songs about the plight of stray cats. During her performance she was accompanied by her incredible trained pussy who would purr and meow along with the songs. Toulouse-Lautrec was commissioned to paint the routine for a poster in return for free drinks. Whilst Jane Avril performed, Lautrec sketched away - until the pop of a champagne cork sent the cat into a frenzy. It dived under Avril's skirts and dug its claws into her inner thigh sending the artiste into a frenzied attempt to dislodge it by shaking her leg in the air. This provided an uncensored glimpse of her undergarments to the audience who cheered. The band attempted to cover the event with some fast loud music, whilst Avril shouted to the stage manager to bring the only thing to which Puss would respond to — a can of cat food. 'Bring the can.. .the can.. .can!'
These shrieks reached the ears of a visiting journalist just as he had asked what this wild new dance was. By the next morning the headlines were full of it. 'Jane Avril Dances The Can Can' accompanied, of course, by Lautrec's painting.



It all came about one hot day in Provence when Pierre Bonnard's cat, whom he affectionately called 'Nood', saw a bathtub filled with cool water and decided to climb in. Bonnard, who was searching for his wife in a fit of depression brought about by lack of inspiration, stumbled upon the soaking cat. The sight fueled an idea for a painting. 'Today I am going to begin a canvas which I shall call Nude Bathing', he called out. Well, while his chief model, Mrs Marthe Bonnard, prepared herself for the session, Pierre made a hasty sketch before evicting the dripping pussy in favour of Marthe who features in the better-known Nude Bathing 1937. Here is the completed Nood Bathing 1937, which is believed to come from the artist's private collection.



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