Painted Purrs: Felines in Fine Art

The fickleness of cats is a lot like the fickleness of inspiration. A lot of the time, they come to you when you’re not prepared.

Perhaps this is why a lot of artists are – or were – cat people. Not all, but many. We’re used to the fickleness. And cats don’t demand care on the level that dogs do – cats are pretty much self-maintaining in a lot of ways, which is good for busy or forgetful artists. From time to time, they will remind you very much so that they exist, but only for food or a good lap-sit. When I’m working from home, my cats are a periodical reminder for me that I need to stop, rest, and use my hands for something else (specifically, for some ear skritches).

I’ve also found a lot of introverted people are cat people, and a lot of artists are introverts. It’s no surprise, then, that introverted creatives are attracted to small, low-maintenance, loving, and generally quiet and low-energy solitary furballs.

Ballerina with Black Cat

It’s not surprising, then, that artists have put cats in their work. Over the years, there have been a decent amount of paintings featuring cats, though not always in large or positive roles. In medieval art, cats were often depicted as evil demons, or minions of satan; in renaissance art, they were small scrap-eating dwellers under the table. Interestingly, paintings made during the impressionism era seem to depict more friendly relations with cats. Pierre Carrier Belleuse’s “Ballerina With Black Cat” is one impressionist piece that quite clearly depicts a cat within the main feature; the darkness of the cat anchors the ballerina in her light-colored tutu. This art period, which coincided with increasing freedoms for women – growing however slightly – shows both cats and women depicted as they were in real life, life at the time – not ideologically or mythologically.

morisot cat
Girl with a Cat

Impressionism also fostered many women artists, though they aren’t as well known as their compatriots such as Renoir or Monet. Marie Cassatt and Berthe Morisot painted daily lives of women and children, many of which interacted often, and closely, with their feline friends  – see Berthe Morisot’s “Girl with a Cat”, or Mary Cassatt’s “Sara Holding a Cat.” It becomes clear that girls and cats now come together – receiving a little more respect than they’d had before.


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