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.










Mention the name Edvard Munch and people will immediately name his famous picture The Scream. But where did the inspiration for this masterpiece come from? Munch was plagued by a series of illnesses and nervous breakdowns. He used painting as a way of expressing his strong feelings and passions which resulted in the vibrant, frenetic style which became the basis for Expressionism. One evening as Munch dejectedly wandered the streets around his home, he found a petrified cat, shivering in a heap - the perfect symbol for his inner torment! The cat appeared to be trapped - as if transfixed by an invisible force. On closer inspection Munch discovered a tiny mouse, who obviously had the upper hand and was stalking the terrified puss! A cat terrified of a mouse. Munch had found the language for his feelings. He later replaced the cat with himself and the famous and unforgettable image was born...or so it is told.



Muscovite Wassily Kandmsky originally set out to study law, but seeking to explore and express his 'inner and essential feelings' he turned instead to a career in art. But what was it that made the young student turn from law to art? A cat might hold the solution to the riddle. Imagine the scene...the young Kandinsky is crouched over his books, pondering the delicate balance between individual freedom and the needs of the broad masses...his landlady's cat enters the room and perches on top of a pyramid of law books. The young student's concentration is broken and absent-mindedly he begins to doodle. ..suddenly his attention is caught by the sound of his landlady's voice as she holds out a cup of tea: 'I should give up law and study art instead, love'. Kandinsky looks down at the page originally intended for his essay and discovers his new direction. A career in law is abruptly ended and the artist is born! Here is a copy of the doodle that started it all.



This recently discovered study is thought to be by the French painter Henri Matisse. This strange work featuring three linked cats, which shocked critics when it appeared in 1905, is believed by some to have been inspired by the three witches in Shakespeare's Macbeth. According to an ex-neighbour of Matisse, who wishes to remain anonymous, it was, however, the result of a drunken bet. This is his story.
'There was a group of artists gathered at Matisse's house. They had been drinking all day, and bragging... "I can paint a horse whilst standing on my head", says one, "Well I can paint Mont Sainte-Victoire with the brush held between my toes whilst drinking a double absinthe..." says another. Anyway, Matisse says he can throw a cat into the air and paint it before it reaches the ground. Then I hear one of his drinking partners say, "Bet you couldn't do that with three!" and Matisse says, "You're on!"
'Matisse then ties a gas balloon to each of the cats and lets them hover in the air, unharmed, whilst he paints...leaving the balloons out of the finished picture, of course! There was almost a fight between the artists, but then they just burst out laughing, landed the cats and went on drinking for the rest of the night!'



The Dutch painter Piet Mondrian had a great influence not only on art but also on architecture and the applied arts. His was a world of abstracts, where everything superfluous was removed - you'll find nothing ornamental or subjective in his canvases. In spite of this detachment, the picture shown here is possibly the result of a domestic battle. Mondrian was said to have been allergic to cats' fur, yet his partner insisted on allowing her faithful puss Tabitha to sleep on the bed. Mondrian bargained, 'If I give you a way to always have that cat on the bed that won't affect my allergy will you accept it?' His partner agreed. Mondrian quickly set about creating a quilt pattern which immortalized Tabitha, which he then had made up by the local quilting circle. The design was great success - it solved Mondrian's domestic problems and the money earned from sales of the pattern was nothing to sneeze at!



Swiss-born abstract artist Paul Klee once wrote that 'Art does not reproduce what is visible; it makes visible'. Here is a fine example of just that -and perhaps the event that influenced such thinking, who knows! How, other than through art, can one portray the fact that the family cat has eaten the canaries without resorting to dissection or X-rays?



Fernand Leger, like most Cubists, often focused upon machinery and angular compositions, and was inspired by industrial images for his pictures. There is a rather amusing cat tale behind this one.
It was the day of an eclipse and superstition was rife. As the moon covered the sun everything was plunged into darkness. Along with the rest of the city, the many inhabitants of a tenement block situated opposite a building site came out to look at the sky. As they stood, gathered in group of about a hundred people, the eerie atmosphere was worsened by a sudden hideous moaning that grew louder and louder. The bloodcurdling noise sounded like a cross between a baby crying and the distant howling of wolves.
Then suddenly someone pointed upwards. 'Look. ALIENS!' The crowd froze in horror as they saw the little creatures hovering above them picked out in the strange light. 'It's the end of the world as we know it!'
At last the light began to return to normal, and as the sun appeared again in the sky, the mysterious beings were revealed as nothing more sinister than a group of stray cats. The frightened felines had scrambled up the girders during the eclipse and had been as scared of the throng below as the crowd had been of the 'aliens'!



What can be said about Pablo Picasso that hasn't already been said? Painter, sculptor, ceramicist, engraver, playwright: he's done it all. He is said to have been greatly influenced by the stray cats that roam the Spanish beaches in search of the fish heads and offal cast off by returning fishermen. One such stray found its way into the artist's studio one day and set about its feast with gusto in front of a mirror. In an effort to shoo it away, Picasso hurled his palette knife at the beast. He missed the cat, but hit the mirror - which shattered into tiny pieces! Unperturbed, the cat began to groom itself in front of the broken looking glass. The cat's reflection in the fragments of broken mirror are said to have inspired Picasso's faith in man's ability to construct as well as to destroy and to have paved the way for his shift to Cubism.



Georges Braque was a curious artist who seemed to want to show all sides and aspects of an object at once. His method involved the Cubist techniques of muted colour tones and geometrical shapes, lines, triangles and even the use of letters. This gave an almost three-dimensional quality to his work. But where did the idea come from? This is the picture that might have started the entire Cubist movement. One day as the artist was busily working away in his studio, he was disturbed by an almighty crash. He rushed to his window only to see that an ice truck (a common sight before the invention of the refrigerator) had shed its load. When all the debris had been cleared from the street, and the huge cubes of ice were lifted and reloaded onto the van, there remained some unfortunate victims. One of these was a cat, which lay flattened with a shocked expression amongst small pools and streams left by the melting ice. From above it looked something like the picture shown here. Braque included the word 'CAT' on his work in case any viewer had difficulty identifying the creature! Once his work was completed the kindly artist peeled the hapless cat from the road and thawed it out in front of his studio fire.



Edward Hopper was one of America's favourite artists. He had a way of playing with light and motion, of capturing isolation and stillness using sunlight and shadows to create odd and oppressive atmospheres.
The inspiration for this brooding piece came from a pack of undesirables who were making a nuisance of themselves in Hopper's home town. Just around the corner from the artist's studio was a late-night diner where, for a number of weeks, a gang of stray cats had been causing no end of trouble. They hung around on the street corner, monopolized the bar, deafened everyone with their blaring jazz music and intimidated the other customers into buying them milk. Hopper had been in the habit of calling at the diner for a late-night coffee after a hard day slaving over an easel, but he had grown increasingly nervous of this gang of hip cats. Eventually he hit on a plan to get rid of them. He agreed with the ringleader of the cats to immortalize him and his friends in a moody, atmospheric painting on the condition that they would find some other place to hang out in the evening.
Whether the gang kept their end of the bargain isn't known, but this painting has preserved for ever what were perhaps the original 'cool cats' of the 'beat generation'.



Marcel Duchamp is another of those artists who sets out to challenge our preconceptions of art. He stated that what mattered was not the creation of a work of art, but the idea and selection of images that lay behind it. This idea defined the concept of 'found objects'. To illustrate his point he bought a porcelain urinal from a plumbers merchant which he signed 'R. Mutt 1917', before entering it into an important exhibition.
His next piece was a stray cat that he found in an alley. It is said that he signed its collar 'Du-chat' and tried to exhibit it, but alas, Puss would not keep still long fact it moved around so much that Duchamp was inspired to try and capture the essence of motion. By superimposing slightly altered versions ot the same image over one another he found he was able to obtain the sense of movement. He was so pleased with the result that he went on to use the same effect in his painting Nude Descending a Staircase.



L. S. Lowry spent his life working as a clerk, secretly studying art in his spare time. He was eventually discovered as an artist at the ripe old age of 52! His work is considered to have captured the 'dark satanic mills,' of William Blake's England. It gives an insight into the lives of the ordinary working people of the industrial north, who he portrayed as vital and active despite living in back-to-back houses amid factories and mills belching out smoke and toxins. This had been thought to be the main subject of his work until one day the office cat knocked over Lowry's ink blotter and this picture was discovered on the underside. It seems that as a counterpoint to his images of human industry, Lowry had been drawn to cats who, as everyone knows, never lift a paw to work! This scene of idleness in front of the symbols of human industry was obviously too poignant for the artist and, until now, the painting had been hidden away.



Andy Warhol is undeniably the High Priest of Pop Art culture. Best known are his prints which turned everyday objects and images into icons of our time. His subjects were as diverse as Marilyn Monroe, Che Guevara and cans of Campbell's soup. The technique he used involved multiple screening of a single image in various colours, but it might never have come about if Andy had not run out of cat food in the middle of the night. To appease his hungry cat he opened a can of soup hoping it would consume the contents; of course it didn't. In frustration Andy quickly redecorated another soup can with a picture of a fish and when he opened that, kitty was fooled and ate the mixed vegetable broth! It is not known whether the cat reacted to the soup by repeatedly changing colour or whether some psychedelic substance was responsible for the vision Warhol subsequently had, but the event certainly led to an exciting era in art history and a catalogue of screen prints.



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