Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Painting Cats

It is at least five thousand years since cats graciously condescended to live among us. In that time, we have paid homage to their grace and beauty in art, music and literature. 
Great artists, from Leonardo to Picasso, have painted cats. For the delight of my fellow-ailurophiles, here are just a few of the painted cats that I like.

Giovanni Lanfranco: Young Man Lying on a Bed with a Cat (c.1620)
An enigmatic and provocative picture, thought to be a self-portrait. The young man's smile and direct gaze seem to hold an invitation, in an intriguing gender role reversal. The tone and feel of the painting is reminiscent of Velasquez's "Rokeby Venus" or Ingres' "Grande Odalisque".  The cat he is stroking, adds to the sensuous mood.

John Everett Millais: A Flood (1870)
             This painting was inspired by the story of a baby in its cradle, swept away by the water during a great flood disaster in Sheffield. The child seems unconcerned by the danger and is entranced by the birds in the branches above her. The cat, who has hitched a ride on this little ark, is fully aware of the peril and her mouth is open in a terrified miaow. True to Pre-Raphaelite form, the picture has a Biblical flavour, evoking both Moses and Noah.

Paul Gauguin: Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?  (1897) detail
This detail is from the huge (5’x 12’)  painting considered to be Gauguin's masterpiece. The painting is populated with figures symbolising our journey through life and the animals with whom we share the world. The fundamental questions about the meaning of life remain unanswered (unless you are a devotee of Douglas Adams, in which case you will know the answer is 42.) 

Pierre Auguste Renoir: Julie Manet (1887)
Julie was the daughter of Berthe Morisot and her husband Eugene Manet, younger brother of the painter Édouard Manet. As a child and an adult, she posed many times for her mother, her uncle and their Impressionist associates.
This portrait was done during the period when Renoir experimented with a style like that of Ingres, characterised by vivid colours, meticulous line and drawing, and an enamel-like finish. Julie herself thought it a good likeness, but Degas didn’t like it:  "by doing round faces, Renoir produces flower pots", he said.  

Sophie Gengembre Anderson, Awakening (1881)
Sophie, a Frenchwoman married to a Scot, lived in London where she was influenced by the Pre-Raphaelites. She specialised in children’s faces and genre pictures.  Some of her paintings veered toward the fey and faerie, so beloved of Victorian middle class taste. This double portrait of cat and girl, both gazing trustingly at the viewer, has an air of gentle affection. Her realistic style and genre subjects remind me of a Victorian Norman Rockwell. 
Suzanne Valadon: Study of a Cat (1919)
Suzanne Valadon,
who modelled for and was the lover of many of the famous Impressionists (Dégas, Toulouse-Lautrec and Renoir among others), was a formidable artist in her own right. She painted landscapes, still lifes and female figures, frankly naked in an unashamed way that was shocking at the time.
She loved cats and painted many pictures of her own Raminou, including this one of him on the chair which looks so much like the one in Van Gogh's bedroom.
I can recommend "Suzanne Valadon: Mistress of Montmartre", by June Rose – an absorbing biography  of a fascinating woman. 
Mary Cassat: Sara Holding a Cat (c.1907-08)
Mary Cassat  was American but lived most of her adult life in Paris, where her art could flourish. With Berthe Morisot, she was one of Impressionism’s Grande Dames.
One usually associates  Cassat with "mother-and-child" pictures, but she also painted many single children, using children from her local village as models . She painted Sara several times, her sweet face and agreeable nature making her a perfect model.
Sara's gentle cuddling of the kitten and her tender look evokes Cassatt's leitmotif  of mothering.
Théophile Steinlen: Two Cats (1894) 
This picture of two elegant Art Nouveau cats is a poster by Steinlen for an exhibition of his prints and drawings. He worked closely with Toulouse-Lautrec and the two of them were the first great poster artists. Steinlen’s first and most famous poster (see top of page) is of the iconic black cat, advertising “Le Chat Noir”, the first nightclub/cabaret in Paris.

Giovanni Boldini: Girl with Black Cat (1885)
Like his contemporary, John Singer Sargent, Boldini was a fashionable portrait painter among the Great and the Good of Paris and London.
I love this picture, which is as much a portrait of the cat as of the girl. It is full of energy as she leans her weight backward to balance the rather large cat who is trying to escape from her arms. He already has one paw free and his stern gaze says: “Look out, I’m going to deploy claws any minute now!
I can recommend “The Cat in Art” by Steffano Zuffi. In it, you will find all the above cats and many more.

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