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.










This wonderful painting, thought to be by Gustav Klimt, recently came to light in the possession of an elderly bag lady named Vera. Klimt was fascinated by the three ages of woman, and his work often featured the female figure portrayed as eager child, dreamy young woman or gaping crone. Where this interest sprang from is a mystery, or it was until Vera arrived on the scene. Claiming to have been Klimt's lover and model in his early days, she traced his obsession back to afternoons spent observing his pets playing.
'He would sit and watch his three cats - a beautiful young cat, her small kitten, and a skinny old cat - at play in the garden of his studio. He was endlessly fascinated by the difference in behaviour between the playful kitten, the languid young cat and the spiky and spiteful old cat.'
Vera, went on to say that the artist would spend hours contemplating the patterns in the cats' coats and would become transfixed watching them curl their tails. She claimed this is what inspired the artist to incorporate spirals and cats' eyes in his pictures.
'He used to call me his little kitten and gave me the picture. Our relationship could never have lasted though; I was allergic to cats you see.' The discovery gave Vera enough money to retire comfortably and today's art scholars 'paws' for thought.



No artist has influenced set, costume and fashion design quite like Leon Bakst, best known for his collaborations with the great impresario Sergei Diaghilev and the famous Ballet Russe. And no cat has influenced an artist quite like this one if, of course, the story is true....
In a smoke-filled cafe in the Arab quarter of Paris late one night there was an important meeting to discuss future projects for new ballets. Ideas were thin on the ground. Nijinsky became restless and Diaghilev was a bundle of nerves. Just as things were getting really tense a cat wandered into the meeting.
'Get that beast out of here! I've told you a thousand and one times that I can't stand cats!' shouted the irate Diaghilev, as he wrenched a sabre from the wall and hurled it at the beautiful oriental tabby that had disturbed his chain of thought.
Mortified, Abdul, the cat's owner, coaxed his pet from the room. 'Come Scheherazade, we know when we're not wanted! Another night of this and we'll both lose our heads.'
Bakst thought for a moment then inspiration struck.'Scheherazade...a thousand and one nights...'
There was no turning Bakst! The story of Scheherazade from the Thousand and One Nights became the new ballet starring Nijinsky, and Bakst treated the cat to this fine portrait by way of thanks.



Onå of the best known British illustrators is Aubrey Beardsley, whose artwork for The Yellow Book caused quite a bit of controversy. This picture is no exception. It was recently discovered lining a shelf underneath a stack of unopened cans of catfood. Curious? Well you are not alone, the subject of this painting has even the experts baffled. It is a perfect match to an earlier painting - with one slight difference. The earlier painting had an empty bowl in the foreground. So what happened? Either this is the 'before' picture, and the cat skulking in the background is eyeing up the goldfish as a snack, or this is the 'after' picture, and the cat has kindly run next door and borrowed one of the neighbour's pet fish to complete the composition. Art history experts may be baffled as to the original sequence of the pictures - although anyone who knows anything about feline nature might have a few suggestions.



Roussian-born Marc Chagall has a naive style which uses imagery and colour to blend fairy tales, fantasies and dreams with reality. The reality behind this picture was a party! Boris and Natasha were celebrating a big event in their lives - the arrival into their family of two new cats, rescued from the local animal shelter. As things were difficult to locate in shops at the time, guests were asked to bring along a little something: some wine or bread, party hats and so forth. Chagall, a lover of celebrations, not to mention brightly coloured balloons, insisted on bringing hundreds of them and a very big bottle of balloon gas. While he was busy talking to the hosts, the two new arrivals investigated his contribution to the party with great curiosity One cat licked the tasty nozzle while the other found the silver-coloured handle simply irresistible to claw. The next thing anybody knew was that people and cats were floating all over the place!
Chagall, who had been finding it difficult to gain recognition for his work, found that this leitmotif of floating figures ensured his place in the galaxy of masters!



The surrealist painter Giorgio de Chirico loved to eat fish. Every Friday he would make a special trip to the fishmongers and buy a plump piece of haddock which he would share with his faithful cat. One week, after making his customary trip to the fishmonger, De Chirico returned to his studio and began puzzling over a painting that he was planning of the famous poet Guilliaume Apollinaire. So engrossed was the artist that he completely forgot to give his cat the fish head and tail as usual. The hungry puss got fed up with waiting and devoured the entire haddock! But De Chirico wasn't angry at the cat for stealing his dinner - far from it. Instead the artist found the inspiration that he had been looking for. ApolHnaire, after all, was also known for a theft - that of Leonardo da Vinci's masterpiece the Mona Lisa.
Filled with renewed vigour, De Chirico launched himself into his tribute to Apollinaire. The finished painting uses the artist's thieving puss to represent the poet and a mounted fish to symbolize the Mona Lisa. De Chirico rewarded his cat with a midnight visit to the local aquarium!



Before you turn the page thinking that this is a rather strange picture, listen to the story behind it and perhaps you'll think differently.
The artist Max Ernst worked in a wide variety of media, although the areas that he was most prolific in were collage and an experimental form of painting that he invented known as 'frottage'. You've probably heard of brass rubbing, well the principle was the same. The artist would lay his paper on a textured surface and then draw. The surface would then be revealed in the picture - with varying degrees of success, as there was really no way of guessing how any picture would turn out. The idea came about when Ernst, short of inspiration, decided to leave his artistic creation to the hands of fate. He blindfolded himself and wandered around his studio until he came up against something solid. He stopped, laid down his paper, and proceeded to draw. It just so happened that the object that he had chosen was his pet cat, Manx, who was lying on the floor licking himself. No permanent damage was done and, if the truth be known, all that petting and attention was more than welcomed by Puss!



The Belgian surrealist Rene Magritte was often guilty of putting the cat amongst the pigeons. Take for example the smoker's pipe in his picture titled The Treachery of Images, under which he wrote in his best copperplate handwriting 'Ceci n'est pas une pipe' (This is not a pipe). Well of course it was a pipe - anyone could see that.
Another example of the artist's perversity is illustrated here, in this little-known version of one of his most famous works. Apparently Magritte was commissioned to paint the picture by an American art collector, who was living in Paris and was feeling incredibly homesick for New York.
'I'd like you to paint me something to remind me of home, the Big Apple, and my poor old puss Fluffy...he sniffed sadly.
Perhaps it was something in the translation or simply that Magritte had run out of patience with the sentimental old fool, but whatever lay behind it the painting was a huge success and led the artist on to even better and greater things.



Internationally renowned Spanish surrealist Salvador Dali is said to have spent an entire day watching a cat whose gaze was firmly locked on a timepiece which the artist had placed on the sideboard. This so fascinated Dali that he began to ponder what shape objects must take when seen through the slit eyes of a cat. The problem nearly drove him crazy. He sat for hours twirling his moustache, which became stuck in an odd position and remained that way. Eventually he decided that a surreal approach was needed and that it would be more interesting to paint his predicament. By superimposing a cat onto the image we are suddenly able to see, not through the cat's eyes, but through the cat itself. The melting clock represents the irrelevance of time to the contented cat. 'Melting' objects went on to become the identifying feature of Dali's future work - and his moustache became the identifying feature of the artist!



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