February 15, 2006

Three paintings of cats

I bought a card in the National Gallery yesterday, in honour of the cat which it depicts.

The cat is a detail from Willem van Mieris' A Woman And Fish-Pedlar In A Kitchen, or the painting itself is a detail in the depiction of the cat: while the painting itself may centre on a basket,

my attention centred firmly on the cat.

The cat itself has her attention on the bird whose neck is hanging over the edge. (I think it is a she: the plumpness may suggest a tom, but the colour suggests otherwise, and I've met quite a few she-cats plump enough to pass the test of size.) The colour of the cat is beautiful: but the cat itself is not quite right.

There's always been a shortage of good cats in art. One notices this almost immediately in the National Gallery: so many paintings are bucolic in theme, or depict people who wish to show their relationship to the land, that dogs have a clear advantage. The artist depicts hunters:

where there are hunters, there are dogs.

So there are not very many cats in art, and well-realised cats are few and far between: assuming you can see the elusive cat at all. (I am sure I saw a cat in the attic in Bosch's Adoration Of The Magi

when I saw it just a couple of years ago: but either my memory is failing or my eyesight cannot detect the creature any more.)

Van Mieris' cat is, as I say, beautiful but not quite right. She does not have quite the poise of a cat, even a chubby one: she is a little too solid, a little too inclined to look but not to try and touch. The bird is well within reach: where a dog might merely enquire, a cat would reach out, jump, claw for her prize, walk round in circles, plead, wail, try again, and if rebuffed, would glare and prowl and sulk. But our cat here is just a little quizzical: a little too human, or even canine, rather than catching completely the essence of the cat.

Hogarth, on the other hand, overdoes it just a little.

His cat, as we might expect, is after the bird: but makes it too obvious, lets his presence be known, scowls and snarls at his target rather than approaching it with quiet, cunning and dexterity. Of course, in a cage, the bird is probably beyond his reach: but if it came to scowling and snarling it would come after the cat had made his play, not while he cased the joint from behind a chair. Hogarth is a theatrical painter and exaggerates for an effect he usually achieves: but cats are subtle, it is no small part of their capacity to enchant, and I would have thought it too theatrical a cat.

Of the three cats I saw (after a while, ones going looking for them), it is Manet who captures best his cat, and it is no surprise to learn that Manet himself had a cat, Zizi, who was the model for the painting.

She is a fantastic cat, perfectly realised in form and character, splendid in her isolation, entirely self-absorbed. She accepts Mme Manet's stroking without complaint but also without acknowledgement, each of them benefitting from the other's presence but each, at the same time, devoted to their own thoughts.

If it were painted today you would have guessed Suzanne Manet was watching the television: as it is she seems distracted, unable perhaps to give her full attention to the cat. But Zizi gives her full attention to herself. One imagines her tail flicking, occasionally, from side to side, to aid her meditation, until without warning she makes up her mind and jumps down from Madame Manet's lap to go about her business.

Woman With A Cat? Though Edouard Manet was not really in a position to say so, it is Cat With A Woman, the world looking at Zizi, or looking at the world as Zizi sees it. I bought a card depicitng the cat as painted by van Mieris, and she is quite a cat: but Zizi is a cat among cats, le chat des chats. I cannot keep my silence in the presence of a cat: and I cannot see Manet's painting of Zizi without saying, out loud for all to hear:
What a cat! What a cat!


At February 15, 2006 5:37 pm, Blogger bat020 said...

cat sculpture

At February 15, 2006 8:18 pm, Anonymous edt said...

I'm currently my mother's care- giver since her stroke. She can no-longer play her favourite game, croquet. But she keeps an avid interest in the game. I was reseaching croquet memorabilia on the net for her just yesterday and tripped over these. I find the art that humanizes animals slightly disturbing. http://cgi.ebay.com/LOUIS-WAIN-A-GAME-OF-CROQUET-CANVAS_W0QQitemZ7390228289QQcategoryZ20144QQrdZ1QQcmdZViewItem#ebayphotohosting and http://www.lombardmaps.com/cat/prints/child/6.jpg BUT I have always had a good laugh from this site , particularly the 'bad kitty list' http://www.badpets.net/CatHumor/CatLinks.html How is the wrist & employment situation by the way? Regards from New Zealand.

At February 17, 2006 7:05 pm, Anonymous Mrs M said...

I think the Hogarth cat is doing that jaw-clattering thing that cats do when they spy a feathered morsel. I love that painting and if I ever get on Desert Island Discs I may well choose it as my luxury. For good cats in art, I recommend Gwen John's pen and ink sketches.

At February 22, 2006 2:14 am, Blogger Laban said...

What about Percy in Hockneys postrait of the Ossie Clarks ?

At February 22, 2006 10:36 am, Blogger ejh said...

Not bad, but not quite Zizi. (A little stiff, perhaps.)

At February 25, 2006 12:43 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A delicious catty essay

At February 27, 2006 11:07 pm, Anonymous waterhot said...

I was given a Louis Wain cat by my grandfather (an art dealer) as compensation the day my sister was born. The title of the picture "A Very Superior Cat" is very apposite, and for most of my childhood I actually found the picture disturbing rather than reassuring. Wain had an interesting history : he became increasingly schizophrenic as he got older, and his later pictures reflect that in a sort of century-early pychedelia.

This is a super little article, Justin, by the way. Thoughtful and informative. Thanks. You should do more like this.

At March 03, 2006 12:26 pm, Blogger bat020 said...

Congrats on being the lone voice of sanity on the Eye letters page this week, J

At March 03, 2006 1:49 pm, Blogger ion said...

Ad admirable blog. As an aside, van Mieris' cat is de facto female as a tortoiseshell (X-linked phenotype).

At March 03, 2006 2:45 pm, Anonymous JB said...

Govinder is big on drawing cats (and dogs for that matter)

e.g. http://www.artforall.co.uk/images/WG/GNSC60.jpg

At March 04, 2006 8:16 pm, Blogger Levi9909 said...

Congrats on the Private Eye letter

At March 06, 2006 7:13 am, Anonymous Paul Lyon said...

ion: agreed, a tri-color cat (torti or calico) is almost always a female---there are a few XXY male tri-colors about but these are very rare. Nice essay Justin.

At April 12, 2006 5:44 pm, Anonymous Lynn said...

Mrs M said...

I think the Hogarth cat is doing that jaw-clattering thing that cats do when they spy a feathered morsel.....

-- My late ex husband always called this 'twittipating'.



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