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Meow: The Cat Ladies of Art History
Here are 7 of our favourite feline-loving-females from fine art...
Art Expert 03 May 2022

With the state of the world, the state of the dating pool, and the price of childcare – the prospect of becoming a cat lady is increasingly appealing to us.

Far from being an insult indicating the cat-lady-in-question’s spinsterhood, being a cat lady is a title worn with pride by thousands. In fact, having a cat is actively beneficial for your health. It’s been proven that having a cat can lower anxiety and stress-levels, and even improve your heart-health and lower your risk of strokes. Sign. Us. Up.

Women and cats have been interlinked throughout history, and believed to have similar qualities of elegance and intellect. The ancient Egyptian goddess Bastet was half-woman half-cat and was in charge of domesticity and childbirth. The fertility goddess Li Shou in ancient China took the form of a cat, too. The Norse goddess Freya – goddess of strength and beauty – had her chariot pulled by a team of cats!

There are plenty of cat ladies in modern pop culture – that one in the Simpsons, Angela from The Office, Catwoman, even Taylor Swift is a proud cat lady. But how about in art history? Here are 7 of our favourite feline-loving-females from fine art.

Madonna of the Cat – Frederico Barocci, 1575

This Renaissance masterpiece by Federico Barocci – Madonna del gatto – shows the Virgin Mary, Joseph, John the Baptist, and the baby Jesus cuddled up with a playful kitten. Domestic cats were only mentioned in the Bible a handful of times (lions get much more coverage) and in this image the cat looking up at the goldfinch held in John the Baptist’s hands seems to be an allegory for Jesus’ death.

Julie Manet with Cat – Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1887

The model is the daughter of Berthe Morisot and Eugène (brother of Édouard) Manet, both of whom were close friends with Pierre-Auguste Renoir. We can’t get over how happy this kitten is snuggled up in Julie’s arms.

The Cat’s Lunch – Marguerite Gérard, c.1800

This is the level of service that all cats demand: up on a throne, being fed by a kneeling servant, all while a dog watches hungrily from the floor. Cats and dogs appear regularly in Gérard’s work, demonstrating her insider-knowledge of the domestic realm. Marguerite beat the odds as a successful female Rococo artist, and studied under her brother-in-law Jean-Honoré Fragonard.

Laziness – Felix Vallotton, 1896

This looks like our ideal Sunday morning: gorgeous new sheets and pillows, chilling out nude, petting a cat. Heaven. The Les Nabis artist Felix Vallotton was a master at woodcuts, turning the art form from an archaic, conservative one to one that was striking and modern with intense colour changes and patterns.

Woman With Cat – Kees van Dongen, 1908

This work by the Fauvist master shows characteristic contrasting vivid colours, their brightness adding to the impact of that glorious black feline right in the centre. You can tell by the use of blue in the cat’s fur just how shiny and sleek its coat must be – we’d love a cuddle ourselves.

The Bridge – Carl Larsson, 1912

Office Goals – what we wouldn’t give to be an artist having just set up their easel on a clear sunny morning, accompanied by a curious kitten. The girl at the easel is Larsson’s daughter Lisbeth (one of his eight children), sat in the garden of their family house in Sundborn, Sweden.

Sara Holding a Cat – Mary Cassatt, 1908

The tiny kitten and adorable toddler make this painting Double Cute. Made towards the end of her career, the mark-making is rough and broad in this portrait. This may well have been because of Cassatt’s deteriorating eyesight, and these models were unlikely to have wanted to stay still for long (they do say, in show business “never work with children or animals”).

Author: Verity Babbs

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