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Cat Prints, Elizabeth Harvey-LeeGraphic images of Cats,
prints from the 16th – 20th Centuries

Though traditionally the cat has been held to be the ‘familiar’ of witches, it might equally be so described in relation to artists. Erasmus Darwin wrote To respect the cat is the beginning of the aesthetic sense, while Desmond Morris observed Artists like cats; soldiers like dogs and in the opinion of Leonardo da Vinci The smallest feline is a masterpiece. The American Pop artist Robert Indiana noted After all, a cat and art are only two letters removed. One feels when artists include a cat in their compositions, or make the cat their specific subject, that the cat portrayed is a part of their household.

It is strange that P G Hamerton, an enthusiast for etching and the graphic arts and a contemporary of Manet, should have opined It is odd, 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. In terms of printmaking this claim does not stand up; some of the greatest printmakers have included cats in their prints, Dürer, Barocci, Bellange, Callot, Rembrandt, Hollar, Goya, Manet &c. The instance of cat prints increases sharply from the end of the 19th century, after Hamerton made his comment.

Cats appear in prints before the end of the 15th century, very shortly after the invention of the earliest intaglio technique, line engraving. Their presence, particularly in Northern Europe where they appear first, is however at this period generally symbolic. Perhaps the earliest example of an engraved cat is in Israhel van Meckenem’s engraving ‘The Visit to the Spinner’, c1495-1503, which includes a cat resting on the floor in an interior with a woman sitting spinning accompanied by a man seated holding his sword by the hilt point-down on the floor between his feet. From a series formerly considered as straight-forward scenes of daily life but now interpreted as expressions of different sorts of love, this image represents illicit love. The cat was traditionally a medieval symbol of lust, while prostitutes were nicknamed ‘cats’ and brothels ‘cathouses’. The presence of the cat in Meckenem’s engraving points to the reason for the man’s visit to the woman spinning.

However, in the 16th and 17th centuries a cat is often included in prints of general scenes of women spinning without any overtones of illicit or ‘commercial’ sexual reference. Girls were taught to spin to fit them for the virtuous household duties of marriage, hence the term ‘spinster’ for an as yet unmarried woman.

The visual symbolism associated with cats is complex and sometimes contradictory, reflecting various aspects of their innate characteristics and not just feline sexual proclivities. Their greed for food and lack of guilt at stealing it saw them included in kitchen scenes. Brueghel’s ‘Rich Kitchen’, engraved by Pieter van der Heyden in 1563 has a cat, while the ‘Poor Kitchen’ is without. Their nocturnal habits suggested night and darkness and by association evil, the Devil and witchcraft; but equally sleep. Despite this bad press and often being only grudgingly valued as pest controllers, the quiet, self-contained, contemplative, companionable nature of the cat also occasionally attracted old master printmakers’ attention. A cat reposing or curled up asleep emanates security and the comfort of home and hearth and invites being drawn.

The Italian School seem most open to this domestic aspect of the cat’s nature. A delightful little etching by Giulio Campagnola, c1515, shows a fat baby seated on a step whispering into the ear of one of a group of three fat cats sitting on a ledge. Eneo Vico’s engraving of the 'Academy of Baccio Bandinelli', c1552, has a cat at the feet of the apprentices who sit drawing in front of the fire. Federico Baroccio included a sleeping cat curled up on a chair in the corner of his ‘Annunciation’ etched c1585. When Goltzius engraved his series of ‘The Life of the Virgin’, 1593, his master-pieces in imitation of six great masters, he included a less innocent cat on a window sill springing up to catch a bird between it front paws in ‘The Holy Family’ engraved in imitation of Baroccio. Several other prints of the holy family include an incidental cat. Jacques Bellange shows a cat beside the cradle in his ‘Virgin and Child with a Cradle’, c1600-1610. Rembrandt’s friend Ferdinand Bol, c1645, and Rembrandt himself, 1654, both etched the holy family in interiors with an attendant cat. The cat is nowhere mentioned in the Bible but from the 16th century is portrayed in biblical subjects, particularly those given a contemporary interior setting.

Cat Prints, Elizabeth Harvey-LeeIn the mid-17th century appeared two prints which are exceptions to the general old master sidelining of cats. Wenceslaus Hollar and Cornelis Visscher each portrayed a cat as the specific subject of a print (catalogue items 6 & 9), though even here Hollar’s cat is surrounded by the inscription It’s a good cat that doesn’t steal tidbits and the setting by a grating with the cat oblivious of the mouse behind him in the Visscher engraving suggests the possibility of an ulterior, hidden meaning.

Emblem books had been popular since the later 16th century with their moralising images which had several layers of meaning. Cats (in an age before neutering) featured in these illustrations usually as the subjects of amorous aphorisms. Cats also appeared in printed illustrations to popular collections of satirical fables, “Reynard the Fox”, the “Fables” of La Fontaine and their prototype Aesop’s “Fables”. Pictorially cats lend themselves well to anthropomorhism and were also treated in this manner in independent prints (items 14,22,29).

The illustrations (items 10,11) to Count Buffon’s “Natural History”, the first encyclopaedia of the animal world, from the later 18th century, anticipated a new interest in cats as print subjects in their own right; a move from the cat as symbol to the cat as model. Gottfried Mind in the early 19th century was the first artist to dedicate himself to the cat as a theme. In admiration of his skill and observation, capturing cats in action, at play, fighting, as well as at rest, his contemporaries gave him the sobriquet Raphael of the Cats. Though not himself a printmaker, publishers commissioned engravers to etch his drawings and watercolours (items 17-20).

Queen Victoria helped to make cats fashionable pets. She kept Persians. Pasteur’s publication in 1865 on the transmission of diseases and the benefits of hygiene further contributed to the cat’s elevation from the kitchen to the drawing room; feline cleanliness and fastidiousness being their passport. The growing popularity of cats in middle class homes led to a demand for decorative pictures and prints of cats (items 23-26).

Artistically the cat came into its own in fin de siècle France (one of the Montmartre cabarets was called Le Chat Noir, The Black Cat, and published a periodical of the same name whose pages were decorated with images of cats by notable artists of the day). Cat prints proliferated throughout Europe in the early decades of the 20th century.

Published 2000
64 pages, 126 items described and illustrated in black & white, 8 in colour.

(UK Price: £10, International orders: £15)

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Artists included in the catalogue:

  • Aldous W
  • Allingham H
  • Anderson S
  • Baer M
  • Baquoy J C
  • Berger G
  • Bloemaert C
  • Bloemaert F
  • Bodmer K
  • Bonnard P
  • Bresslern-Roth N von
  • Brightwell L R
  • Bodribb G M
  • Brooks M
  • Brueghel P
  • Callet-Carcano M
  • Cardon A
  • Chahine E
  • Colley W F
  • Colqhoun R
  • Couché J
  • Delaune E
  • Detmold E J
  • Dix O
  • Dodd F
  • Dunoyer de Segonzac A
  • Elstrack R
  • Foujita L T
  •  Frood H
  • Gill E
  • Gill P
  • Girdwood S
  • Goeneutte N
  • Goya F
  • Grant D
  • Green A
  • Green G
  • Halm P
  • Hamilton I
  • Hamson T D
  • Harvey J H
  • Hegi F
  • Hollar W
  • Hughes P
  • Kempster A B
  • Komjáti J
  • Lambert P
  • Laprade P
  • Legrand L
  • Lempereur L S
  • Lindsay L
  • Loevy E
  • Manet E
  • May E G
  • McEntee D
  • Menpes M
  • Miel J
  • Mind G
  • Monogrammist DAC
  • Morgan G
  • Morisot B
  • Murray C O
  • Muyden H van
  • Nash J
  • Nash P
  • Nemes-Ransonnet E
  • Niekerk S
  • Paterson V
  • Petterson M
  • Phipps H
  • Pimlott P
  • Platt J
  • Plückebaum M
  • Possoz M
  • Prevost B I
  • Rágóczy J
  • Reiner I
  • Rowlandson T
  • Royds M
  • Schenau J F
  • Sève J de
  • Simpson J
  • Smallfield F
  • Steinlen T A
  • Stiles S
  • Tavener R
  • Teniers D
  • Thomas M F
  • Tournour M
  • Turner L
  • Utagawa T
  • Vegter J
  • Vernet C
  • Visscher C
  • Zorin L

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