It was never a question of if I would write about cats in art, but when. Whelp, it looks like the time has come. Animal symbolism is all over the place in art. Felines pop up everywhere from Ancient Egyptian sculpture and hieroglyphics to 19th century French painting. Some animals, like ravens, are bad omens. Dogs usually symbolize openness, friendliness, and loyalty (like in The Arnolfini Wedding or The Venus of Urbino, for example). Cats, however, are used in so many different contexts that they don’t really have one accepted metaphor.
Let’s start at the very beginning (ish). In Ancient Egypt, cats were not always deities, but certainly had spiritual significance. They were beloved domestic animals, cared for and revered by all members of a household. They were also thought to ward off evil spirits! So that’s why my house is so peaceful, er, well it doesn’t have evil spirits anyway. Felines were so respected in Egyptian culture that anyone who killed one was sentenced to death. The goddess Bastet was part feline, and the daughter of the all important Ra. Her prayer asks the goddess to keep evil from the minds of the devout.
Albrecht Durer was the most famous engraver of the Northern Renaissance, and in my humble opinion a right prodigy. I think sometimes art historians read too much into paintings, but Durer rarely put anything in his work that didn’t mean something. In his version of Adam and Eve, there are four animals along for the ride, each representing one of the “four temperaments.” In the earliest days of psychology, bodily fluids or “humours” were thought to be responsible for personality traits and behaviors. The temperaments are sanguine, choleric, melancholic, phlegmatic. The kitty cat in Durer’s engraving represents the choleric – a personality characterized by connoisseurship of extreme emotional states: passionate, assertive, but prone to deep bouts of dolor. I always thought that cats would be a relaxed phlegmatic: rational, chill, and a bit passive-aggressive. But I guess even cats get the blues.
The 19th century is probably my favorite era for cats in art (yeah, there’s a hierarchy). I wrote long ago when I was 19 and probably a terrible writer about how Manet’s Olympia places a cat in the salon as opposed to the Venus of Urbino‘s dog, to run with the theme of unwelcome, intrusion, and turning the male gaze back on itself. The Awakening Conscienceby Pre-Raphaelite William Holman Hunt is a masterpiece of the “fallen woman” genre. Allegedly the original patron couldn’t stand to look at the woman’s pained expression, and Hunt re-did it, more tempered. In these domestic scenes, you might expect to find a dog, a symbol of warmth and family. However, this painting is supposed to be disturbing!
The woman rises from her chair, while her lover plays on, oblivious to her dilemma. The message is clear in the context of Victorian culture: her morality is compromised. Many objects in the rather garish room speak to this theme. The cat under the table toys with a bird. The bird seems to be alive but in the midst of battle for life and death. If the cat functions in a similar way to Olympia, it could represent threat and snubbing – the treatment this woman would receive by society if she continues her current lifestyle. However, the bird could symbolize her slight chance of redemption.
It turns out cats are pretty fascinating animals, eh? At least fascinating enough to be a motif across millennia and eras of art history. It makes sense. Hopefully you a have cat, possibly staring at you as we speak. Look into its eyes. Do you really ever know what it’s thinking? These mysterious creatures are subject to countless projections of what we think, but they’ll never let us in on the truth.
By the way, I love cats.