Carl Van Vechten (18801964). The Tiger in the House. 1922.
The Cat in Art
IT is odd that, notwithstanding the extreme beauty of cats, their elegance of motion, the variety and intensity of their colour, they should be so little painted by considerable artists, writes Philip Gilbert Hamerton.1 Almost all the pictures of cats which I remember were done by inferior men, often by artists of a very low grade indeed. The reason for this is probably that although the cat is a refined and very voluptuous animal, it is so wanting in the nobler2 qualities as to fail in winning the serious sympathies of noble and generous-hearted men. The reason for this is probably nothing of the sort. To begin with it may be stated categorically that artists as a class, and painters in particular, are seldom noble and generous-hearted men. Then, although so well-known an animal painter as Rosa Bonheur seldom painted the cat, preferring to dally with his less subtle brother, the lion, and Sir Edwin Landseer, after two youthful attempts,3 sought easier subjects, nevertheless I can scarcely recall the name of a single artist of note who has not at one time or other made an effort to draw a cat, and almost all of them have failed. The simple fact of the matter is that under any ordinary circumstances the animal is too difficult to paint. The artist, indeed, who would succeed at feline portraiture, must first of all have a certain understanding and sympathy for cats, and then he must devote his lifetime to their study. Landseer decided he could not give so much time to one form and so he set himself more facile tasks.
The beauty of the cat is very deceptive, for under the grace of the furry exterior lie concealed steel-like muscles. Now the artist who indicates the grace and softness usually misses the strength and the artist who seizes the strength usually does so at the expense of other qualities. The cats eye alone, an eye skilfully blending innocence and mystery, an eye which changes with the hours of the day, offers insuperable difficulties. Nothing is so difficult, observes Champfleury, as to paint the cats face, which as Moncrif justly observes, bears a character of finesse and hilarity. The lines are so delicate, the eyes so strange, the movements subject to such sudden impulses, that one should be feline oneself to attempt to portray such a subject. With every movement, with every thought, the cat varies in expression, contour, and markings. The cats character, too, must be taken into consideration. No self-respecting cat has any leanings towards a career as an artists model.
She is willing, writes Arthur Tomson, from some experience, to be observed at times when the performance under scrutiny is entirely of her own direction. But let a cat imagine for one moment that she is under some sort of compulsion, and very speedily she will let you know who is master. If one wishes her to lap milk, and provides her with the means of doing so, she will sit up and wash herself; if one wishes her to wash herself she will chase her tail; if it is a sleeping attitude that one is studying she will scamper off. No sort of training, or affection, or love of good food will turn the cat into a perfect assistant to any artist. Neither will any sort of compulsion.4
But the greatest obstacle to painting the cat is the obstacle that any portrait painter must be prepared to meet. The technique of painting may be acquired; one may learn how to paint bodies and faces, arms, legs, hands and ears, characteristics, in short, but how few portrait painters can paint character; how few can go beyond externals. It is exactly this final touch that felinophiles miss in pussy pictures. The painter has painted a cat, perhaps, satisfactorily enough, but whose cat? One of the most celebrated painters of cats, Henriette Ronner, is a great offender in this respect. All of Madame Ronners cats and kittens have a tendency to look precisely alike; they have little or no character.
Contemporary artists were often inclined, naturally enough, to paint Théophile Gautier surrounded by his feline harem. He sometimes posed in Turkish costume, squatting on cushions and overrun with cats. He admitted that there was little exaggeration in these pictures and that the portraits of himself were admirable, but it was hard to induce him to praise the cat portraits. He missed the peculiar and characteristic features: where was the curve of Zuleikas snow-white breast, the deep repose of Zulemas folded paws, or the eloquent elevation of Zobeides jet-black tail? Painting cats, he used to say, is a question of genius, my dear boys.
Nevertheless one meets with the cat in nearly all forms of art from the time of the early Egyptians down to the present day. Curiously enough she is not a conspicuous figure in Roman or Greek art but perhaps her absence may be accounted for on the same ground as that on which Mrs. Emily James Putnam accounts for the disappearance of the Athenian lady.5 At any rate there are comparatively few examples of art dealing with cats in the Greek and Roman collections. The two notable exceptions are a Grecian urn of the best period and a bas-relief in the Capitoline Museum on which a young woman is represented who tries to teach her cat to dance while she plays the lyre, the cat naturally preferring to snap at a duck.6
Even more curious is the neglect of the cat in ecclesiastical architecture. The demons sculptured in the mediaeval cathedrals were often put there to plant terror in such matters in the hearts of the people, but although cats and witches were ever so chummy, demon cats do not raise their hideous fangs in these churches. What few cats do appear in these carvings seem pleasant enough in intention.
In Tarragona Cathedral, Havelock Ellis notes the broadly humorous sculptured scene in the cloisters where we see a solemn procession of rats joyfully bearing on a bier a demurely supine cat, who, a little farther on, is again seen vigorously alive and seizing one of her unfortunate bearers while the rest are put to flightthe most insignificant sculpture in the cathedral, but perhaps the most interesting, the sacristan observes smilingly.7 In the first scene tabby lies on a litter borne by rats and mice and preceded by a train of rodents bearing banners, vessels of holy water, aspergills, crosiers, and censers. The executioner, a rat bearing an ax, marches under the litter. This stately pageant is followed by the more lively scene in which the cat springs up and catches a rat while the rest disperse in all directions.8
In Great Malvern Abbey rats may be seen hanging a cat in the presence of owls who are looking on with an air of legal wisdom and judicial gravity. In the Cathedral of Rouen a cat chases a mouse round a pillar in the nave. In Albert de Brules choir-stalls in San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice, representing scenes from the life of St. Benedict, several cats are introduced. On one stall puss is quarrelling with Benedicts raven; on another she is eating a mouse under the couch of a sleepy brother, whom the saint is endeavouring to waken. There are two droll cats in the choir of the old Minster in the Isle of Thanet.
Champfleury found a fifteenth century capital of a hideous animal in the Museum of Troyes and a door-lintel at Ricey-Haute-Rive with a bas-relief of a cat in company with hens, a fox, and a rat. Viollet-le-Duc, the restorer of the Château of Pierrefonds ornamented the dormer windows of the inner court with cats in different postures. Champfleury has chosen a mother with a kitten between her teeth for reproduction.
In the pictures of the early Italian, Flemish, and Spanish masters the cat frequently appears, seldom, if ever, I must admit, very well painted. Nevertheless she is to be found in Annunciations, Holy Families, Last Suppers, and Marriage Feasts at Cana indiscriminately. I have no doubt that some painter has included her with the elders among the furtive observers of Susannas plight. Bassano painted and repainted the departure from the Ark and invariably in these pictures a big, brindled, self-satisfied cat leads the procession, for it has pleased the artist to follow the Arabian rather than the Biblical legend. Occasionally, indeed, puss is already frightening a rabbit or pouncing on a dove. In Tintorettos Leda a tabby snaps at a duck.
In the Vatican Gallery hangs an Annunciation by Baroccio in which a great silver cat sleeps on the Virgins work and in another painting by the same artist to be seen at Budapest a tranquil cat on a cushion regards the visiting angel through half-opened sleepy eyelids. What are angels to her, indeed? Another cat characteristically indifferent to angelic visitations may be observed in the Annunciation of Federigo Zucchero on the portico of the hospital of Santa Maria Nuova at Florence and the cat also appears in two frescos by Puccio in the choir of the cathedral at Orvieto. In the one Saint Anns great white cat arches her back, lifts her tail, and drives a dog from the room; in the second, while others are occupied looking at the newly born Virgin she stands on her hind legs and helps herself to some food on a little table. In Baroccios famous altar-piece, La Madonna del Gatto in the National Gallery in London, the cat, of course, is the centre of interest. The infant St. John holds a struggling bird high over his head and the cat rises towards it. In Ghirlandajos celebrated fresco of The Last Supper in the refectory of the Monastery of San Marco in Florence a most intelligent cat scowls disapprovingly at Judas. Benvenuto Cellini, too, places a cat at the feet of Judas in one of his bas-reliefs. Is it possible that this juxtaposition may be regarded as uncomplimentary to the animal? The cat in Veroneses The Marriage at Cana is not the most easily remembered detail of this large canvas. Many of Veroneses pictures contain cats but so carelessly painted that they might be taken for weasels or lap-dogs. Benozzo Gozzoli painted the cat in the scene of the Ark on the walls of the Campo Santo at Pisa and a black cat with amber eyes occupies herself watching the maids washing the new-born Virgin in the Oratorio of San Bernardino at Siena.
The picture which of all others, however, best illustrates the temper of the cat as the Italians knew her two hundred years ago, and as we know her today, was painted by Luca Giordano, and hangs in the Imperial Gallery of Vienna, Agnes Repplier observes with some humour. It is another presentation of that ever familiar theme, the birth of the Blessed Virgin. Saint Ann sits upright on her bed. Saint Joachim enters the door. The spacious room is full of attendants, engaged in waiting on their mistress, in airing the baby linen, in washing and admiring the infant. Everybody is busy and excited. Everybody save Saint Ann is standing, or kneeling on the floor. There is, in fact, but one chair in the room. On that chair is a cushion, and on that cushion sleeps, serene and undisturbed, a cat.
Many Flemish artists painted cats. In Hieronymus Boschs The Birth of Eve a fierce puss is devouring an innocent tadpole and in van Tuldens Orpheus Taming the Beasts, while the other animals seem to be lulled pleasantly by the music, the cat is on the point of attacking a lion. These pictures are in the Prado Museum at Madrid. In the genre pictures of the Dutch school cats naturally play their decorative part, basking by the great stoves, or frisking with kittens, or stealing meat. Jan Steen, Jordaens, Jan Fyt, Willem van Mieris and Rembrandt all occasionally included cats in their designs. In Munich there is an Annunciation by Hendrick met de Bles in which the Blessed Virgins cat, a handsome white beast, sleeps by her mistresss side.
Fragonard painted a cat or two. In Jan Breughels Paradise Lost in the Louvre the cat sleeps contentedly while our parents are being driven forth. This is perfectly catlike; it also serves to remind us that God did not drive cats out of the Garden. In Franz Floriss Garden of Eden puss lies stretched between the feet of Adam and Eve. The cat sleeps again beneath the elevated stove in Lebruns unsophisticated Sleep of the Infant Jesus in the Louvre. Watteau painted a delicious Chat malade, rolled up like a baby in the arms of his little mistress, who is weeping. An Italian comedy doctor, with skull-cap and eye-glasses, attends the invalid with a majestic air, while the cat himself makes a face like a spoiled child at the smell of the medicine. There is a puss in Velásquezs Las Hilanderas. Gainsboroughs Child with a Cat in the Metropolitan Museum in New York is a familiar picture but the child is painted with more care than the cat.
One could go on and on listlessly with this dull catalogue. These cats have no great interest but they serve to indicate that puss roamed home and studio with as much freedom three centuries ago as she does today. The old Italian and Dutch artists introduced grimalkins into their pictures because they saw them about the place, but they only introduced them as decoration or ornament, like vine-leaf or vase, chair or table, although Hamel9 suggests that occasionally they may have wished to indicate the animal spirit that dwells in human beings: Sir Joshua Reynolds painted two portraits of young girls, one holding a cage with a mouse in it, the other a kitten. The former is called Muscupula and the latter Felina, and it may be surmised that he intended to show in their features the imitative sympathy young children have with young animals. This tendency may be studied in more modern painting. Boris Anisfeld has painted his daughter, Morella Borisovna, with her hand on the head of a black and white puss. Both girl and cat have a band of black hair over their eyes and as the expression in each case is nearly identical the artistic intention of the painter is obvious. A redhaired lady in a picture which hangs in a corridor of the Hotel Astor carries her counterpart, a red and white pussy, sound asleep in her lap. Renoir, too, was conscious of the relationship between animals and people. In Le garçon au chat, (1868) a superb example of languid grace, beauty, and indolence, a boy stands in a luxurious attitude with his arm drawn round a luxurious cat. The faces are brought close together and there is a decided resemblance between the two. In La femme au chat (18789) a country girl sleeps with a cat asleep in her lap. These cats, it may be added, are extremely well painted. It was not Renoirs custom to approach any subject in a half-hearted way.
There have been, however, painters who devoted themselves to the cat, who painted cats with accessories, instead of cats as accessories. There was, for example, Gottfried Mind, to whom Madame Lebrun once gave the sobriquet of the Raphael of Cats, a name by which he continues to be known to this day, although his work bears as little relation to Raphaels as the Belgian Shakespeares bears to that of the author of Timon of Athens. Of Hungarian origin Mind was born at Berne in 1768; he died in 1814. He consecrated his life to painting bears and cats, mostly cats, animals to which he was devoted. When in 1809 an epidemic of madness broke out among the cats of Berne and a general massacre followed Mind was inconsolable10 although he saved his own Minette. The painter and his cats were inseparable and his Minette was always by his side. Sometimes she would sit upon his knees while kittens perched on his shoulders and rather than disturb his friends he would remain in one attitude for hours. To his cats he was unfailingly polite and affable but he treated men with the same scant courtesy that Jeremy Bentham allotted to humans.
I have not seen any of Minds original drawings; indeed I have seen but few reproductions of his work. These are interesting and indicate a deep talent for cat painting. Depping writes of him (Biographie Universelle): His pictures were, one might almost say, cat-portraits; he gave every shade of expression to their soft and cunning faces; he lent infinite variety to the graceful attitude of kittens playing with their mother; he depicted the silky coat of the cat perfectly; in short the cats painted by Mind seemed to be alive. This praise of Minds work may be a little excessive, but his fame as one of the earliest of the cat painters is still considerable.
Delacroix painted cats which resembled tigers more than household pets and his pupil, Louis Eugène Lambert,11 was a celebrated cat painter. His Family of Cats did hang in the Luxembourg Gallery in Paris; perhaps it does still. On this rather conventional canvas the mother sits on the table and superintends the antics of her mischievous kittens.
Of Henriette Ronner, whom writers on two continents and an island or two united to honour on her seventieth birthday, I cannot speak with any enthusiasm. She painted cats all her life and several albums devoted to her pictures of pussies have been published. I have one or two of these myself. These pictures are sentimental; they are story pictures, but that is not their worst fault. They are carelessly observed, superficial. In such a canvas as her Banjo Madame Ronner can be very ingratiating, but in such a picture she has said all that she ever says. It is apparent at once that this lady, who painted cats for several decades, never learned more about them than the most casual observer would know at first glance. She makes no attempt at differentiation; one of her cats looks much like any other. They are usually represented in families, a fond mother looking on while the babies play in and out of work-baskets, on chess-boards, in empty bird-cages or clocks. The sort of thing for which, no doubt, you could depend upon an immediate purchaser, who would sign a cheque with an added encomium, My, arent they sweet! Well, of course, they are. Madame Ronner caught a certain playful streak in kittens although some of her kittens are almost as wooden as Henry IV doors; she caught texture in fur; her arrangements are sometimes happy; but she never, it seems to me, captured the soul of the cat, because au fond, Madame Ronner was a Belgian bourgeoise and it takes an aristocrat with a Persian soul to understand the soul of a cat.
Champfleury shoots most of his enthusiastic sky-rockets to celebrate an obscure English painter named Burbank and claims to have discovered him, but Mrs. Hoey in her translation of Les Chats exposes the French writer in the following footnote: M. Champfleury has drawn upon his imagination for these facts. In Graves Dictionary of Artists, Burbank is described as an animal painter who exhibited twenty-seven pictures in London between the years 18251872, twelve of them in the Royal Academy. Champfleury says, A few years ago I saw a wonderful water-colour drawing, representing a cats head, life-size, in the studio of Dantan, the sculptor. In this picture there were melted and mingled certain qualities which make a Holbein, or a plodding clockmaker, a Denner, or a forger of bank notes. It would be useless to attempt to describe the eyes of the animal as they looked into the face of the spectator. The pen becomes useless before the marvelous tints of those eyes. And yet here was a painter whose brush was capable of rendering strange looks. This painting is the result of the prolonged attention of an observer whose fault is that of coldness. Excessive application and exactness have the counter quality of lessening the enthusiasm of the artist. Cold and correct, passionate and incorrect; so few men are quite perfect! So great is the importance that I attribute to Burbank that I venture to assert, if the cat painted by this artist were placed among the ancient drawings in the Louvre, not only would it hold an honourable place there, but it would attract the attention of all who are capable of appreciating the interpretation of truth. To some, who have seen only such reproductions of Burbanks work as Champfleury offers, this description may seem a trifle exaggerated; to others, I dare say, it will not.
Edouard Manet painted cats several times. There is, for instance, the etching of the cat among flowers, which he made for the edition de luxe of Champfleurys volume which is not, to be sure, very convincing evidence of his skill in this direction. But the poster he painted for this book, the celebrated Rendez-vous des Chats, in which a superb black carl-cat is paying attention to a white queen among the chimney tops, while their tails are flaunted in the face of the rising moon, is amazing. On the bed of the nude Olympia a black cat arches his back. It was probably the artists somewhat ribald intention to suggest the familiar of a modern sorceress. This cat, soon known as the cat of Monsieur Manet, for a time enjoyed a succès de scandale. Now that the picture has reached the Louvre it has become old hat and neither the lady nor her pussy are much talked about any more.
Aubrey Beardsley occasionally painted cats, and as well may be imagined he painted them black. Wicked demon cats are the cats of Aubrey Beardsley. In Aymer Vallances iconography of Beardsleys work he notes a design for Meinholds Romance, Sidonia the Sorceress with the demon-cat, Chim. William Morris criticized this drawing unfavourably and it is almost certain that Beardsley destroyed it. Among his grotesques for Bon Mots is one of a woman with a cat, an eldritch beast with spread claws and a horrid face. Vallance mentions a Pierrot with a black cat which I have not seen. For the large paper edition of Poes Tales of Mystery and Wonder (Stone and Kimball; Chicago; 1895) Beardsley made four drawings, of which the one for The Black Cat is perhaps the most striking.
I do not believe I have ever found cats in art which so completely satisfied me as the cats of Grandville. Jean-Ignace-Isadore Gérard, who called himself Grandville, was born at Nancy, September 15, 1803, and he died March 17, 1847. He was an illustrator and he designed lovely and amusing pictures for the works of Béranger, the Fables of Florian, Lavalette, and La Fontaine, Gullivers Travels and Robinson Crusoe. Even in these cats may be found but for the finest examples of his drawings of felines you must turn to Les Métamorphoses du Jour, Les Animaux Peints Par Euxmêmes, Album des Bêtes, Cents Proverbes, and especially, La Vie Privée et Publique des Animaux. When I first opened this latter book, indeed, I simply chortled for joy as I experienced an enthusiasm which I had never before felt for the cats of any artist. The sickly sentiment of Madame Ronner, the commonplaces of Burbank, even the drawings of Mind had left me more or less as they found me, but the drawings of Grandville gave me the requisite thrill.
When I stumbled upon Grandvilles drawings, almost by accident, for they are not reproduced in any of the cat books I have seen and the volumes in which they originally appeared are now very rare, I almost shrieked for joy. Here are cats! I shouted: Here, indeed, are cats! For Grandville not only solved the conflicting problems of grace and strength, he also solved the far more difficult problems of individuality and expression.12 You, who have a favourite grimalkin or matou or tabby queen, you know that your cat looks different from the cat in the next block. His gestures are different; his eyes are different. But cat painters, as a whole, have not felt this difference. That is why, although they have painted many cats, few cat pictures remain in the memory. You remember the details of a set of Goya prints because, while each is infused with the strong personality of the artist, each suggests something new, just as you forget a set of Charles Dana Gibson prints because every one suggests the same thing as its neighbour, which is nothing at all. In the latter nineties a popular song proclaimed that All coons look alike to me. A paraphrase of this idea seems to have been the principal inspiration of cat painters, who apparently have said to themselves: We must learn how to paint fur, how to paint strength, how to paint grace, how to paint eyes, etc., but they have seldom perceived that they must also learn how to paint character. Indeed it may never have occurred to Madame Ronner to consider whether or not cats have character. If it did occur to her she never made the slightest attempt to put this idea into her pictures.
Now Grandville never, or hardly ever, except in the homely illustrations for Robinson Crusoe, or for Bérangers poems, draws a cat in an ordinary situation. He surrounds his cats with fantastic touches, dresses them in clothes, asks them to use furniture, but so sure is his touch, so correct his feeling, that for days after I had seen his cats it did not seem right to me that Feathers should not march on her hind paws and wear gowns. These gowns, these attitudes, these gestures, seemingly human and uncatlike, all fall into place and become indispensable attributes of cat character. Recall the little minx in an ermine robe reclining on a couch. No one ever saw a real cat in a gown from the Rue de la Paix; no one ever saw a real cat lying in the attitude affected by this little lady, very nearly the same as that in which Caro-Delvaille painted Madame Simone, and yet any one would recognize this puss should she walk through the doorway to confront the picture, so strongly does the drawing suggest character. So, too, you would know the Chinese cat, or the demure and frightened female on the roof, vacillating between the white agathodemon and the black kakodemon cats while the chimney pots grin disapproval. In Cent Proverbes to illustrate A bon chat, bon rat, Grandville has drawn an adorable matou in a top coat with a portmonaie projecting from his pocket, high hat held behind his back, and bouquet, bowing to a rat dressed as a lady of the ballet. The scene is the stage of the Opéra. The picture of the kittens playing with a mouse-doll while mama knits under a stuffed rat in a glass case is also very amusing. So is the scene from Balzacs story13 in which Beauty meets her Bohemian lover on the rooftop and almost yields to his impetuous importunities. Indeed, the saucy expression of the costaud, Brisquet, is fascinatingly caught. But my eternal favourite is the engraving illustrating the entrance of the respectable Puff in the same story, Puff whose manners were those of a cat who had seen the court and the world; he had two valets in his service; he ate from Chinese porcelain; he only drank black tea; he went to drive in Hyde Park; he was about to enter parliament; Puff, milord matou! This resplendent orange and black Angora is introduced to little white Beauty as a possible mate. He comes into the hall, walking, of course, on his hind paws; he wears a gorgeous overcoat and he holds a silk hat, while two monkey flunkeys carry his tail. His eyes bulge with naïve vanity and poor Beauty, overcome by this splendour, curtseys before him. This to me is the acme, the alpha and omega, the A and Z, the Carpaccio and Shakespeare, the Gluck and Stravinsky, the Napoleon and Mohammed of all cat pictures. Grandville has not only created one cat character herein, he has created two. If you have ever seen a superb Persian matou enter a room in which he was expected to perform the ceremony described in Chapter XXII of James Branch Cabells Jurgen you will be in a better position to understand and appreciate this very extraordinary drawing.
Louis Wains14 rakish London cats are amusing; he is not so keen an observer as Grandville; nor yet so good a draughtsman, and yet there is much to admire in these ribald pussies who smoke cigars and ride motorcycles. There is really a good deal of character in these drawings. Wain is especially successful at depicting ram-cats. In most of his pictures the eyes are emphasized to such an extent that they seem almost to epitomize the cat, but I think his feeling in this matter has been correct; the eyes are undoubtedly the most important single feature of the cat. Wain once remarked that drawing felines was as difficult as drawing circles freehand.
There should be a word for Lady Chances15 exceedingly delightful wash drawings of cats. Lady Chance has stepped in upon puss in many of the interesting moments of her life, but perhaps her supreme achievement is her drawing of the cat with the closed eyes. These little sketches are full of mystery and charm. Arthur Tomsons16 drawings are more conventional and certainly not as interesting. There is a fascinating verisimilitude about Harrison Weirs17 drawings. His cats, mostly in commonplace attitudes, have body. They are honest and they are not sentimental. On the other hand they are entirely bereft of mystery. Mrs. Janviers18 pictures are entertaining. Like Grandville and Louis Wain she has half humanized her cats, dressed them up and asked them to walk upright. The two knights who struggle for the Princess Catinas love in the picture called Taunting Mews are most aggressive, splendid beasties, and in Crawley Mews she has drawn some curious and strange animals.
Elisabeth F. Bonsall has illustrated several American cat books. In The Book of the Cat19 she has an opportunity in full-page coloured illustrations to exhibit the range of her talent. Her cats are more often thoughtful and dignified than playful. They gaze into the fire or at the observer with half-shut eyes, they sleep sprawled across open books. But in pieces of rapid action such as the kitten playing with the leaves or the toms on the roof she is less successful.
Of the moderns Steinlen is probably the greatest of the cat artists. His book Des Chats (dessins sans paroles) is a joy. Steinlen made many posters of cats (they serve decorative purposes as well or better than Chérets dashing barmaids) and the cover for this book is a revision in colour of a celebrated poster, Lait pur stérilisé. A grey tabby claws the skirts of a child bearing a bowl of milk; a black cat rubs calinely against her leg, while a tortoise-shell, a black Persian, and a brown tabby yowl pleasantly and expectantly. An orange tabby, a little aloof, arches his back and says, Please! Other cats are seen rapidly approaching.
Steinlen is the only painter, past or present, who has been successful in drawing cats in action20 and this volume bears testimony to his ability in this direction. The sheets of this large folio are filled with drawings in black and white. They are like the films of a cinema reel; each picture gives us a little more knowledge of movement. Observe, for instance, the page entitled, Poor Little Mouse! on which three Siamese cats shake a rodent out of a trap and capture it. Every detail of this incident is set down with rare fidelity to both movement and the nature of the animal. The horrible end of a goldfish teaches us that all cats who attempt indoor fishing do not meet the tragic death of Grays celebrated Selima. The cat with the ball of yarn is a masterpiece of carefully observed action and the kitten with the burning cigar is equally diverting. The page described as Miaulements is a delightful miscellany of mothers carrying their babies, or suckling them, and toms fighting. There are eleven heads on this page, careful cat portraits, each differentiated as to character and temperament. On the page called Paresse, Steinlen has permitted himself to draw cats in repose, yawning, stretching cats, cats arching their backs, cats sleeping in a dozen or more attitudes. All these are done very surely in a few convincing strokes. The character of the cats is well differentiated in all of these vibrant pages. The dignified black Persian who is the victim of a baby with a wooden horse is a very different animal from the black cat who steals the butter from the babys bread.
Oliver Herfords specialty is kittens for whom, undoubtedly, he has a peculiar feeling. These kittens are suffused with more life than any Henriette Ronner ever painted. They are roguish, innocent, rakish, wistful, but always adorable balls of fur, for it is ever his fancy to paint babies of the Persian tribe. Mr. Herfords21 kittens are scattered through most of his volumes of poetry and through many magazines as well, but the perusal of two books, The Rubáiyát of a Persian Kitten and A Kittens Garden of Verses will give you an excellent idea of his work. Observe, for instance, the smug, short-legged, snub-nosed kitten who sits opposite the lines called Happy Thought:
The world is so full of a number of mice
Im sure that we all should be happy and nice.
This surely is Vachel Lindsays good kitten who wore his ribbon prettily and washed behind his ears. The picture called Foreign Kittens, too, is very attractive to me. A Persian kitten in characteristic attitude watches through a window some common cats on the back fence. This puss is observed from the back and she has been well observed. The Whole Duty of Kittens is quite as pleasing. More celebrated, more amusing, and perhaps better drawn are the illustrations for The Rubáiyát. How perfect is the branch of pussy-willows, for example. How much at times kittens resemble pussy-willows and caterpillars!
It was with Oliver Herford that Fania Marinoff and I met a particularly kitten-like caterpillar. One fine day in summer we all stopped together to look at some fuzzy and caterpillars that promenaded on the branches of the shrubs inside the railing of Gramercy Park. One lusty little fellow, determined no doubt to see the world, tumbled out on the sidewalk, and with the most terrific speed made for the kerb. Fania, determining to save his life, picked him up and put him gently back on the earth inside the fence. He immediately started out again and in a short time was back at the kerb. Now I picked him up and tossed him a yard or so on the grass back of the grating. He returned with an air of abandoned persistence which gave one the idea that he knew what he wanted to do. Mr. Herford next assumed the rôle of the god in the car and tossed him still farther back. Will you believe it that this obstinate kitten-like, fuzzy, red, baby caterpillar came back a third time and before our astonished gaze walked across the street to the Players Club, where for all I know he may have spun his cocoon and turned into a butterfly or a fairy!
But the early Egyptians, the Chinese, and other orientals have probably made better art out of the cat than any one else, for the simple reason that they have seldom attempted to draw or model the animal realistically. Their sculpture, their frescos, their woodblocks are generally fantastic or conventionalized. Thus they have expressed the essential mystery of the most mysterious of living beings. The old bronze cats of the Egyptians are still full of the breath of life. You may study several examples in the Metropolitan Museum in New York. There you may see two bronze cases for cat mummies, each of which supports a cat figure in bronze, one crouching, the other seated upright. Both of these objects are endowed with a soft green patina. There also you may find several exquisite blue faience figures of cats, and an entire case is filled with bronzes. The figures are mostly in the same position, seated, but they are all beautiful. One head, especially, was formed by the artist in honest love. It is perhaps the finest cat-head in the history of art, transcendent in its dignity, nobility, and mystery.
The Japanese and the Chinese too are almost invariably successful in depicting the domestic tiger, no matter in what medium they work. They begin by forgetting the fur and it is on the technique of painting fur that most occidental painters waste their time, I think. Arthur Davison Ficke once told me that the secret of Japanese painting was that the artist never worked from a model; he worked from memory. The result is that when he drew a cat on his block he was drawing his feeling for the cat. Hokusai made innumerable coloured prints of cats, some of which are reproduced in Champfleurys book, and all of which have charm and grace. There is an adorable cat in the first Kiyonobus print of The Princess and the Kitten,22 a prancing, frantically exhilarating creature. And cats wander in and out of the work of Harunobu, Kiyomitsu, Koriusai, Kitao Masanobu, and Buncho. The Mongolians, too, love to represent the cat in porcelain. I have a Chinese cat, Chuang Tzu, ivory porcelain spotted with black, who sits recumbent on his four paws, gazing with his eternal eyes into the mystic maze of the centuries. He has already visited four continents and he has forgotten that time exists. Other Japanese and Chinese artists have represented the cat asleep or just about to awaken, or playing, but always with the grace of love, the understanding of sympathy, and the unescapable oriental touch of mystery. These artists because they never say too much, have expressed without apparent difficulty what European artists almost always fail to express. A row of these exotic images from China would recreate the wonder of the animal, if she should suddenly become extinct. The art of feeling the hidden recesses of feline reserve is now, it would seem, exclusively Asiatic.
Note 2. To bestow such epithets as generous and noble on a dog for pulling a drowning man out of the water, or scratching him out of a snow-drift, is fully as irrational as it would be to call the swallow and cuckoo intrepid explorers of the dark continent, or to praise the hive-bees of the working caste for their chastity, loyalty, and patriotism, and for their profound knowledge of mathematics as shown in their works. W. H. Hudson: The Great Dog-Superstition: The Book of a Naturalist; George H. Doran Co.; New York; 1919. [back]
Note 3. Landseer painted The Cat Disturbed in 1819 and The Cats Paw in 1824. In the former picture puss is persecuted and her nerves are upset by the intrusion at meal-time of a pair of ill-bred terriers. [back]
Note 4. For these and other reasons the cat is also very hard to photograph. The best photographs are instantaneous, as the mere breathing of a cat will blur the fur in a time exposure. [back]
Note 5. Anything that is necessary tends to become an evil, and the wifes dynastic importance, which was her very raison dêtre, operated to her disadvantage as a source of romantic interest. Emily James Putnam: The Lady; Sturgis and Walton Co.; New York; 1910; P. 13. [back]
Note 6. But there is proof enough that classical antiquity loved the cat. Among the objects unearthed at Pompeii was the skeleton of a woman bearing in her arms the skeleton of a cat, whom perhaps she gave her life to save. [back]
Note 10. Once when a similar epidemic broke out among her cats and Mabel Dodge found it necessary to put several of them out of their misery, especially to protect the few who had not succumbed to the contagion, a guest walked the streets of Florence saying to whomever would listen, Murder has been committed at the Villa Curonia! [back]
Note 11. His work may be studied in Les Chiens et les Chats dEugène Lambert, by G. de Cherville; Paris; 1888. This book is illustrated with six etchings (all of cats) and one hundred and forty-five drawings of cats and dogs. [back]
Note 12. Grandville asserted that he had observed seventy-five different expressions in cats. [back]
Note 13. Peines de Cur dune Chatte Anglaise in Vie Privée et Publisque des Animaux. [back]
Note 14. Wains Annual and elsewhere; Wain has illustrated a number of books and made innumerable postcards and calendars. [back]
Note 19. The Book of the Cat, with facsimiles of drawing in colour by Elisabeth F. Bonsall and with stories and verses by Mabel Humphreys; F. A. Stokes Co.; 1903. [back]
Note 20. Renouard comes near to doing so. There are several pages devoted to cats in his volume entitled Croquis dAnimaux. I feel sure that both Benjamin Rabier and Caran dAche must have drawn cats, but I do not seem to be able to find any among such drawings of theirs as I have at hand. [back]
Note 21. Oliver Herfords monogram is in the form of a cat. He calls it his Cat-of-Arms. [back]
Note 22. There is a story to this picture. Josan No Miya, The Princess, was an aristocratic young person much sought after by the youths of the region, but she remained in seclusion until one day when her cat, startled by the noise of the young men come into the courtyard to woo, escaped from her, she impulsively ran after it. [back]