If you were to be foolish enough to Google ‘Cats in art’ (and I really don’t recommend it) you would get ‘about 37,600,000 results’ – probably more by the time you read this: and a great many would look something like the image below (courtesy of Animal Advocates Alliance).
If you limit the field to ‘Cats in Renaissance art’, you get a mere 2,200,000 hits: however, even without ploughing through all of these (indeed, a little mooching round galleries and museums should do the trick), you quickly come to realise that some Renaissance artists really had trouble with cats (as indeed they did with babies).
I have mentioned before the #notalion phenomenon: the #notacat should be equally well known, since, although not many European painters at the time may have seen a real live lion, there is no excuse for them not understanding the familiar features of the domestic cat.
For the purposes of this exercise, the extraordinary creations of medieval illuminators and the idiosyncratic works of Hieronymus Bosch are, of course, excluded.
But what does one make of this detail by Jan Steen?
It’s all the more strange when you think how good early modern artists were at dogs. Look at these examples:
And frequently, beautiful dogs and bizarre cats appear in the same painting, or are even interacting:
So, what is going wrong? The siting of the ears on the head appears to cause difficulties, as in the de Gyselaer above, and in Bernado Strozzi’s ‘Feast in the House of Simon’ (below):
The other recurring feature is a problem with the features: the cat’s face is either too pointed, or too flat.
How much of this is to do with ambiguity of the response to cats during the early modern period? Unlike the loyal, faithful dog, there were times when the cat was associated with witchcraft and the forces of evil.
In Ghirlandaio’s 1482 fresco of the Last Supper in the monastery of San Marco in Florence, a cat sits on Judas’s side of the table, staring out directly at the viewer and apparently representing the betrayer’s evil soul.
And in Dürer’s famous woodcut of 1504, the bulbous-headed cat in profile under the protagonists’ feet is undoubtedly malign:
The Met’s web catalogue page provides a further insight: ‘Four of the animals represent the medieval idea of the four temperaments: the cat is choleric, the rabbit sanguine, the ox phlegmatic, and the elk [deer?] melancholic.’ So, as well as being associated with witchcraft, the cat has yellow bile in excess, which leads to anger, and is associated with the element of fire …
My final example of inadequate painting is another Veronese: the huge canvas of ‘The Feast in the House of Levi’, which the painter created in 1573 for a wall of the refectory of the Dominican friary of San Giovanni e Paolo in Venice, to replace a Titian destroyed by fire two years earlier. Famously, it was originally ‘The Last Supper’, but it brought Veronese to the attention of the Inquisition.
The painting was thought to be too frivolous, containing ‘buffoons, drunken Germans, dwarfs and other such scurrilities’, but with one bound Veronese was free: he simply changed the title to another meal recorded in the New Testament, but one less charged with theological significance.
As in the Ghirlandaio above, there is a cat in close proximity to Judas, but instead of (or as well as?) being symbolic, he is an incidental detail in the narrative – trying to paw a dropped bone to safety under the table, he is observed almost benignly by a dog in the foreground who clearly has no inclination to do anything about it. As so often, the dog is well painted, and the cat is implausibly bad.
Of course, all of the above is a bit of a generalisation: there are some well painted cats in the art of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, including a tabby, snuggled up against the Virgin’s work-basket in Rubens’s second ‘Annunciation’, begun in 1610 but not completed until 1628/9, and now in the Rubenshuis in Antwerp.
It’s just that there aren’t enough of them – why not?