Cats have been a constant throughout history. Not just at mouse catchers, but as cultural icons. Today, we enjoy their curious antics in videos and memes–they are beloved by people everywhere. But this hasn’t always been the case.
The cat’s image has gone through some ups and downs in Western culture. Demonized and massacred throughout the Dark Ages and into the 1600s, cats finally found their footing in our hearts in the beginning of the 19th Century. And two new paintings at Roberson showcase the beginnings of cat fancy in the West.
Prior to the late 1700s, cats were generally demonized through their associations, whether those were related to the devil or the bourgeois. They did find relief in households during times when cooler heads prevailed. Many artists and thinkers, including Leonardo da Vinci, kept cats companions, perhaps seeing their own independent nature embodied in this animal.
It wasn’t until the 1800s that cats really became a part of the household on a massive scale. Even receiving attentions from Queen Victoria when sketch a cat into the proposed design for the newly “Royal” Society for Protection of Animals. Cats reached new heights when the Crystal Palace played host to the first cat show in 1871. We also see cats pop up in more works of art (no longer solely depicted consorting with witches or associating with high-society).
Chat Dormant depicts a woman holding a white sleeping cat. The extreme contrast of dark and light in the image is classic of artist, Theodule Augustin Ribot. He was known for painting scenes of everyday life, and the models in this particular piece are members of his family. This cat crops up in other paintings by Ribot, a significant gesture in showing the animal as part of the everyday and not an “other” in society.
Interior only begins to showcase Carl Kahler’s art history with cats. Before being commissioned to paint a portrait for one Mrs. Kate Johnson–arguably America’s greatest cat enthusiast–Kahler had never painted a cat in his life. This piece was likely done as a study for what would eventually be known as ‘My Wife’s Lovers,’ a painting featuring 42 cats of Johnson’s cats. And ever since Mrs. Johnson’s cats came into his life, they never left.
“In painting a cat, you must notice all its individualities. A cat is as full of as many graceful poses as a woman,” he told The Los Angeles Times in an interview back on July 29, 1893. Kahler showed cats not as a prop, but made them the main subject of his pieces. His fascination with the way they move and emote, showed how cats had unique personality. They are captivating.
Thank you to Khris Eroshevich, who was kind enough to share these stunning pieces with Roberson. They are now part of Roberson’s permanent collection.