Cats in Art: Painting Light on Society - 7/10/14

Today’s blog post comes from Sharifa Lookman, an undergraduate student in Art History at Wesleyan University and summer intern at the New Mexico Museum of Art.

Today images of cats dominate the media in kitsch memes that (albeit humorously) propagate illiteracy, laziness, and awkward eroticisms. Within the historical context, however, cats have embodied a variety of artistic renderings that go beyond the entertaining and decorative. One underappreciated role of cats in art history is their articulation of societal structure. Through the context and stylistic rendering of felines in art, paintings in particular, a social class is imposed on the cat itself, that of royalty, poverty, and everything in between. I further argue that, with this power, the use of cats in art, both historical and contemporary, is a technical tool that demarcates social class for the accompanying figures using a feline-figure parallel.

Pierre Auguste Renoir
Julie Manet, 1887
Oil on canvas
Musee d’Orsay
While cats’ attendance in art dates from antiquity, this case study will focus on art of Western modernity. Beginning in the late 19th century with Pierre Auguste Renoir’s Julie Manet, we do, however, see a cat with a status similar to his Egyptian predecessors: royalty. The dreaming eyes and tight mouth poised for a yawn speak to an innate feline languor as the cat revels in the young woman’s spoiled embrace. In furthering the figure-feline relationship I posit that the personality of the cat echoes that of the figure. This can initially be drawn from parallels in appearance. Just like the feline’s resting eyes and yawning mouth, the young woman’s eyes are half closed, glazed, and seemingly on the verge of succumbing to fatigue. Additionally, the palette and paint handling used to mold the cat are identical to that of the young woman. In the bottom register of the composition the feet of the feline nearly dissolve into the dress of the young woman and the brown pigments composing the cat’s coloring echo the hues of the woman’s hair. Such similarities in appearance insinuate a similarity in disposition. Observation can be extended, however, to present a divergence in this parallel: while the cat is undeniably granted select qualities of kingship, it is not in control. Rather, there is a very particular relationship between the sitter and the cat. The cat acts as an accessory and an amusement that the model manipulates. In many ways the cat has devolved into an infant in need of coddling and supervision, a submission that the cat apparently enjoys. This elevates the status of the figure.

Balthus (Balthasar Klossowski)
Therese Dreaming, 1938
Oil on canvas
Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection, 1998
A contrast to the affluence presented by Renoir is seen in Therese Dreaming by Balthus, a representation of a different point on the societal spectrum that emphasizes hardship and need. In this work a pubescent young woman suggestively reveals her underwear in mock modesty. Unlike in Julie Manet, our feline is positioned in the composition’s exterior. Despite the distancing of figures there are very strong parallels that substantiate the reading of the figure. The gray toned palette of the cat quotes the coloring of the young woman’s shirt and the curvilinearity of the cat’s spine echoes the twisted stretch of the figure. The cat is lapping at milk and underscoring the woman’s sexuality: a seductive lick of the tongue into white milk mirrors the figure’s provocative stretch and display of her white underwear. This superficial reading then lend to an interpretative analysis of the figure’s status. For instance, the shared coloring of the figures is rather muted and the whites are sullied and thus not virginal, an element that further accentuates her sexuality. Both figures appear content, however there is a temporality to the scene: the cat, stationed hesitantly on its haunches, is attempting to steal a quick taste of milk while the young woman’s pose is straining and soon to leave her muscles sore. Both figures lack sincere comfort and instead there is an urgency and need for quick fulfillment. Whether interpreted sexually or otherwise, the dialogue of qualities between the cat and the figure acknowledge a need and discomfort that can best be attributed to more impoverished means.

W. Victor Higgins
Juanito and the Suspicious Cat, 1916
Oil on canvas
Union League of Chicago
Using these pieces as context, we see two sides of the spectrum that provide a glimpse into the versatility of feline function in art. Most importantly, however, we see how the cat adds emphasis to the societal presentation of the figure. In Juanito and the Suspicious Cat by W. Victor Higgins, an artist who resided in New Mexico, the presentation of both the feline and figure differ. Unlike the work of both Renoir and Balthus, the palette of the cat does not directly quote that of the figure, the only parallel being to the figure’s waistcloth. There is a stark contrast between the two figures: light versus dark. Despite the figures’ differences, there aren’t signs of social disparity seen between the figures of Julie Manet. By holding up the cat to eye level he is literally putting the cat on an equal plane. Unlike Renoir the presence of the cat does not give superiority to the figure nor does it accentuate discomfort like that of Balthus. Instead the man is looking at the cat appreciatively without hints of patronization or self-indulgence, and vice versa. The figures are assessing one another almost quizzically and yet with reciprocal respect. This exchange pronounces a curiosity about the figure or, as the title suggests, a suspicion. This curiosity is reciprocated by the native, unlike the rather emotionally detached figures in both the Renoir and Balthus, and thus puts on display as well as the figure. Rather than being passive the man is taking an active interest in the cat. Equipped with the artist’s New Mexico influenced biography, I couldn’t help but read social issues concerning the continuing struggle between Native Americans in New Mexico and Europeans into this piece. The cat-figure discourse is emblematic of a relationship that, though burdened by a history of curiosity and suspicion, is welcoming of respect. Though perhaps overly inferential, this interpretation contextualizes the social influence of cats into the New Mexico art scene.
This illustration provides a focused look into the diverse interpretations that can be drawn from cat’s presence in art and their purpose outside mere decoration. In these three pieces our lovely felines are artistic tools used to acknowledge the emotional and societal undertones of the human experience.

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