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Friday, October 11, 2013

Feline Art

copyright, Jim Lane
Feline Fascination, 1972, Jim Lane
As any present day artists will tell you, painting animals is a sure path to a steady art income. Moreover, the real money is in painting pets. Within that realm, the content usually falls into three major categories, canine, equine, and feline. I've not done any research in this area, but from forty-some years of experience in painting all three, I intuitively feel dogs come first, followed by cats, with horses a distant third. Although we've known and loved both dogs and cats in our home, (horses are too big to fit through the door and tend to eat and poop too much), we currently have two spoiled cats who tolerate our living in the same humble abode with them so long as their food and water dishes are filled to overflowing on a regular basis. I've never painted either one of them and don't intend to. However when it comes to art history, the felines of the four-legged world seem to have far and away the longest painted pedigree.
Egyptian feline sculpture,
600 BC-100 AD.
Conventional wisdom places the merger of cats and art in the land of the Pharaohs probably dating from around 600 BC (right), though the granddaddy of all Egyptian art cats, the Sphinx, is considerably older than that. The Egyptians are said to have been the first to domesticate cats and even went so far as to mummify them. They appear in both sculpted figures and on painted walls. However the oldest graphic depiction of the feline species has been found a little further south...South Africa, in fact, a cheetah painted on a cave wall by bushmen (below). Though it has never been accurately dated, it's no doubt thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of years older than its Egyptian descendants. Central American had its feline population as well; and they made it into Pre-Columbian art as seen in the recently discovered Triad of Felines, low-relief images from the Chalcatzingo culture dating from 1,500-400 BC.

 Bushman painting of a lion in Sandstone overhang, mountains at Balloch
near Barkly East, South Africa. Officially it's a lion, but some
experts suggest it looks more like a cheetah.
Sleeping Cat, 1657, Cornelius Visscher
Julie Manet with Cat (detail),
Pierre-Auguste Renoir
Although there's a smattering of cat art among the Greeks and Romans, as well as the Chinese, domesticated animals of all types seem to have taken a backseat to the depiction of human endeavors up through the centuries until as late as the 1600s. During this period cats were valued more in the control of vermin than as pets, though they occasionally crept into various religious and domestic scenes as fascinating little peripheral figures. The etched print by Cornelius Visscher titled Sleeping Cat (above), from 1657, may be one of the earliest European cat portraits. During the 18th century cats began to appear as pets for small children while a hundred years later they sometimes showed up in the laps of adults, as in Renoir's portrait of Julie Manet with Cat (above, right). At the same time, they began taking their place (usually as kittens) in playful genre scenes in their own right. The French artist, Theodore Gericault seems to have been no cat lover. He once painted a Dead Cat (below). But then, as seen in his Raft of the Medusa, he painted a lot of dead people too.

Dead Cat, Theodore Gericault
With the advent of Modern Art, cats have been the focus of artists such as Fernand Leger, Gustav Klimt, Paul Klee, Matisse, Picasso, and Andy Warhol. However, it is the pet painters today who have really taken over the depiction of cats and dogs in our art world. Felines appear in virtually every style and every role, from gothic bad luck blacks to cute, cuddly kittens. With good photography, cats are fun and easy to paint. Without it, painted from life, they can be quite frustrating, which may account for why cats for so many centuries were frequently depicted as asleep...or dead.

Woman with a Cat (detail), 1921, Fernand Leger



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