Feline Art - How Cats Have Inspired Artists Throughout History

Feline Art - How Cats Have Inspired Artists Throughout History

Today is International Cat Day, a day which was established by the International Fund for Animal Welfare in 2002 to raise awareness for the well-being of cats. Just a couple of years ago, the guardianship was passed to the British not-for-profit organisation International Cat Care, who’s charitable aim is to improve domestic cat welfare across the globe.

Our obsession with, and adoration for our feline friends has endured for many centuries. And a great illustration of this is seen through their representation in art throughout history, from Ancient Egyptian tomb art, Japanese woodcarvings, and Impressionist paintings, all the way to current day contemporary paintings and an endless stream of quirky internet memes.

Perhaps most notably respected were cats in Ancient Egyptian times, when they were revered and immortalised through mythology as deities, like the sun god Ra, and the goddesses Mafdet and Bastet. Tomb art engravings were carved into stone, images were painted on papyrus, and statues were moulded from clay to depict gods and goddesses in the likeness of these elegant
creatures, symbolising an array of virtues from domesticity and fertility to justice and execution.

In Ancient China, and particularly the Song Dynasty (960 - 1279), cats were beloved creatures. In the Myth of Li Shou cats were given the power of speech and rule over all other animals, before deciding that they would rather just enjoy the pleasures of the world and let humans take over the running of things!

Cats can be seen in abundance in the beautifully graceful Chinese ink paintings, such as in the work of 20th Century Chinese artist Xu Beihong, and in Black Cat and Narcissus by 19th Century painter Zhu Ling, which prominently features the feline focal point in heavy black ink juxtaposed with soft pink cherry blossom and powder blue flora, seemingly elevating the importance and dominance of the esteemed subject.

In 1517-18 Italian painter and engineer Leonardo Da Vinci created his piece Cats, Lions and a Dragon which featured over 20 sketches of lions and cats prowling, playing, and hunting; its detail demonstrated his anatomical knowledge and understanding of his subjects, which is further emphasised by his inscription at the bottom of the piece: “Of flexion and extension. This
animal species, of which the lion is the prince because of its spinal column which is flexible...”

In Japanese culture the familiar Maneki Neko (beckoning cat) statues symbolise good fortune. This effigy of a cat with one paw raised in a beckoning gesture is believed to have originated in the Edo Period (1603 - 1867) of Japan, with legends including the story of a poor monk who took shelter under a tree when caught in a sudden storm, and whose life was saved when a cat beckoned him towards a temple just moments before lightning struck the tree under which he
was sheltering.

The 1850 Japanese artist (and cat fanatic) Utagawa Kuniyoshi, widely regarded as one the last great masters of the ukiyo-e style of printing and painting, created his piece Cats Suggested As The Fifty-three Stations of the Tōkaidō. This woodcut print playfully parodies The Fifty-three Stations of the Tōkaidō and is one of a collection of satirical pieces in which he uses cats in
place of humans.

An unmistakably iconic illustration of our favoured feline fauna is Art Nouveau painter Théophile Alexandre Steinlen’s Le Chat Noir. Created in 1896 to advertise a tour of Le Chat Noir nightclub’s cabaret entertainers, the poster was just one of many of his creative compositions which featured cats, for whom Steinlen had a great affection. He even published a book showcasing his illustrations entitled Dessins Sans Paroles Des Chats.

Late 19th and early 20th Century English artist Louis Wain is known for his comical and humanised depictions of cats parodying human behaviour. Of his work he said "I take a sketch-book to a restaurant, or other public places, and draw the people in their different positions as cats, getting as near to their human characteristics as possible. This gives me doubly nature, and these studies I think [to be] my best humorous work."

His colourful life and artwork have been widely documented and much discussed, particularly his mental health and the way in which his artistic expression evolved throughout. Indeed, just last year a film depicting his life, anthropomorphic artwork, and renowned acquaintances (including prominent English Author H.G. Wells) was made, entitled The Electrical Life of Louis
Wain, and starring Benedict Cumberbatch as the eponymous lead and Nick Cave as H.G.Wells, "He has made the cat his own. He invented a cat style, a cat society, a whole cat world. English cats that do not look and live like Louis Wain cats are ashamed of themselves." - H.G.Wells

Portraying the more fierce and brutal side of these esteemed animals, Pablo Picasso painted Cat Devouring a Bird in 1939 which, unsurprisingly, illustrates a startled bird being savaged by an abundantly toothed cat with a gaping maw and wild eyes. The Cubist painting is primitive in style and has a raw natural palette, and purportedly symbolises the horrors and brutality of war and General Franco’s (as represented by the cat) oppression of the Spanish people.

During the Modern Art movement Pop Artist Andy Warhol created a limited-edition book of lithographs adorned with illustrations of his cats 25 Cats Named Sam and One Blue Pussy on which he collaborated with his mother Julia Warhola. The pair were widely known for their love of cats.

American artist Jeff Koons created a humorous sculpture entitled Cat on a Clothesline between 1994 and 2001; a sculpture of a kitten in a sock pegged to a washing line in an exaggerated scale - approximately 3m in height! Of his monumental and cartoon-like piece he has likened it to “a contemporary crucifixion. But it’s also this cute little cat, that’s just in a sock. You can also
think of it as a womb-like situation, feeling that sense of protection”.

Contemporary wildlife sculptors like Adam Binder, Hamish Mackie, Fred Gordon, William Montgomery and Gill Parker pay homage to the sleek, captivating and ferocious nature of big cats in their breath taking bronze pieces Leopard Turning, Cheetah, Running Cheetah, Lion Life Size, and Lion Head.

Award winning Dorset artist Jake Winkle uses vibrant colours and an energetic painting style to create animated watercolour paintings of wild cats, such as the characterful Band of Brothers depicting a trio of cheeky cheetahs.

Here’s Looking at You by Yorkshire based animal artist Aaminah Snowdon, is a wonderfully dynamic original painting which accurately portrays the poised characteristics of the familiar tabby cat as well as their inquisitive and spirited side.

Dominique Salm creates naturalistic animal portraits with a crisp modern aesthetic, and The Usual Suspects is a great example of her sympathetic yet striking style, portraying a row of russet hued and black striped tigers staring back at the viewer, creating a truly mesmerising effect.

Spirit by Jen Allen is a colourful composition combining realistic detailing of her tiger subject with dramatic elements, flamboyant brushstrokes, and a vivid spectrum of colours.

From majestic bronze sculpture to lively original paintings and eye-catching art prints, we have a varied selection of artwork available on our online gallery representing these idolised and captivating creatures.

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