A Brief History of Cat Art

Cat drawing by Arthur Tomson.

The cat art meme lords of the present day interwebs aren’t anything new. Over the weekend I was thumbing through a digital copy of the 1894 issue of The Studio an Illustrated Magazine of Fine and Applied Art, a highbrow art, architecture and craft periodical published in England and the U.S. between the years 1893 and 1925. After several hundred pages of some daring, racy and avant-garde stuff I was surprised to find a review of an exhibition of the cat art of a Mr. Arthur Tomson,

It has been recognised that he has, amongst contemporary painters of cats, eminently succeeded in expressing the suppleness of their action, their grace, and fascinating waywardness. His illustrations to a charming book of poems “Concerning Cats,” contributed to and selected by Graham R. Tomson, at once placed him in the ranks of the masters of this particular branch of animal painting. Those who are acquainted with the work of Burbank, the English painter of cats, Gottfried Mind, called the Raphael of cats, Hokusai, the Japanese genius, the Dutch artist Cornelius Wisscher, Delacroix, whose sketch-books were full of studies of cats, and J. J. Grandville, will understand how completely Mr. Tomson’s work justifies the position it takes amongst the work of these artists.

Would that the latest edition of Art Forum dedicated a few paragraphs to the contemporary masters of cat art. Not wanting to wait for that slim possibliity, I thought I’d take a closer look at the review’s short list of cat artists of the past.

Gottfried Mind painting.

Let’s start with Gottfried Mind (1768 – 1814) the “Raphael of cats.” An autistic painting prodigy, Mind painted cats not from life but from memory hours after he saw witnessed their antics. Other than the occasional bear, Mind focused almost exclusively on cats.

Katsushika Hokusai 葛飾 北斎 (1760-1849) painted a lot more than just cats. His work reached the West at a time when there was an interest in all things Japanese.

Cornelius Visscher 1629-1658 was a Dutch Golden Age engraver. His 1657 print Cat Sleeping has a bit of an Albrecht Dürer vibe.

Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863) is the most famous of this short list of cat artists. He liked to fill the margins of his sketchbooks with cats and, as you can see from the examples above, his work shows the hand of a masterful artist.

J. J. Grandville (1803-1847) a French caricaturist, wins the award for wacky. His anthropomorphic cat series makes him the best candidate for the title of 19th century cat meme lord.

I couldn’t find much info on the English painter “Burbank” mentioned in the article other than this frontispiece based on his work. Update: Root Simple reader Annie tracked down Burbank for me. She says,

I believe “Burbank” is J. M. Burbank:

A Favourite Cat

The Gourmand

There is a bit about “A Favourite Cat” here:

And this book has a section on Burbank

Thanks Annie!

Beyond the cat-centricness of this post, if you’re looking for a few hours to kill I can’t recommend The Studio enough. You can find the whole shebang here. Notable is how seriously the editors considered the art of casual pencil drawing, since it was a skill more people practiced in a time before cheap, candid photography. Also notable is how risqué the art of the Fin de siècle period was.

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3 Comments

  1. Sort of off track but the most impressionable cat illustration for me as a child was Beatrix Potter’s Tom Kitten in the Roly-Poly Pudding. For some reason it terrified me that Tom got stuck in the chimney and wrapped up by the rats. I loved Beatrix Potter’s illustrations and her little green story books found on a shelf in the Pasadena Main Libray’s children’s room.
    Obviously I read some really older books that were stashed in that library. Thus my love of antique books with illustrations.

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