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Sad Cats in Art History: An Appreciation

Century after century, cats have had no interest in fancy portraits; see eight cats who'd love to escape works of great artists and have their revenge.

Lauren Oster  |  Feb 9th 2015


In an artist’s hands, reality is a mere starting point: Claude Monet’s gardens are pastel riots, Pablo Picasso’s women are geometric marvels, and Salvador Dali’s clocks drip like caramel from a spoon. The exception to that principle, as anyone who has ever tried to coax Mister Peaches into a holiday-card photo knows, is pet portraiture: A sad cat is a sad cat, and no duchess’ clutches or Dutch master’s paintbrush can mask a feline’s disdain for his situation. There’s purity in that, and as someone who hates posing for photos with a passion, I admire it. Glower on, sad cats of art history; I salute you.

1. Au revoir, happiness

Pierre-Auguste Renoir painted this portrait (Femme au Chat) in 1880 while on summer holiday at a diplomat’s ch├óteau in Normandy. True to the master of the house’s profession, this tabby is pulling the same face Angela Merkel used when George W. Bush massaged her shoulders at the G8 Summit.

2. The unbearable lightness of feathers

The French genre painter Antoine Jean Bail (who was heavily influenced by the cat-tormenting Dutch masters; more on that later) might not have realized he was working on a still life when he sat down to capture this girl (A Young Girl with a White Cat), but that mangy feather is the only fluffy action he’s likely to see. C’est la vie, Bail.

3. Eel-breaker

Speaking of action, Judith Leyster’s 17th-century A Boy and a Girl with a Cat and an Eel is thought to allude to the Dutch saying, “He who plays with cats gets scratched.” This fancifully collared young lass is counting down the seconds to her brother’s violent feline education.

4. When you haze into the void …

Just three years after Friedrich Nietzsche’s death in 1900, German painter Lovis Corinth painted his young wife, Charlotte, with a lapful of stone-faced kittens (Junge Frau Mit Katzen) and recalled the philosopher’s bitter entry in his journal: “What do I care about the purring of one who cannot love, like the cat?”

5. If you can’t burrito them, join them

David Rijckaert III, "Peasant Woman with a Cat."

Curators have described Flemish painter David Ryckaert the Younger’s depiction of a woman subjecting a cat to porridge (Peasant Woman Feeding a Cat) as an “allegory of the sense of taste.” I believe them, for I once responded with this very same expression when an elementary-school photographer made the distasteful suggestion that I “smile like a princess.”

6. Hold me like you’ll never let me go

This portrait of a child and her cat is thought to have been painted by the American artist Charles Winter in the 1850s; the cat, in turn, is thought to have exacted revenge by pooping in his rough-handed mistress’ boots after she removed them to frolic in her wealthy parents’ ornate marble fountain.

7. “See? He LOVES it when we pretend he’s a baby.”

Celebrated for his depiction of historical subjects, 17th-century painter-printmaker Abraham Bloemaert recorded in this painting (Youths Playing with the Cat) how two young Dutchmen learned to perform first aid on extremely short notice.

8. Trouble in the cathouse

No official account survives of whether or not this lady of the night remained on good terms with 17th-century Dutch painter Jan van Bijlert after he instructed her to torment an animal while topless (Girl Teasing a Cat); I’m going to go out on a limb and say that she did not.

Read more about cats in art on Catster:

About the author: Lauren Oster is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She and her husband share an apartment on the Lower East Side with Steve and Matty, two Siamese-ish cats. She doesn’t leave home without a book or two, a handful of plastic animals, Icelandic licorice mints, and her camera. Follow her on Twitter or Instagram.