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.

For the Locals . . .

On that foot sign
Alissa Walker, one of my favorite journalists, covers urban design here in Los Angeles. She wrote a great piece on our nieghborhood’s iconic podiatrist sign. Walker agrees with me that we need much more than kitschy signs to mark our neighborhoods. She concludes,

We need more reminders of what history predates our presence. We need more streets that are designed to connect us instead of being fast-forwarded through in cars. We need more parks. We need more bus shelters. We need more actual village oaks.

Signs will come down, businesses will move, but it’s the places we create to welcome everyone that truly strengthen our neighborhoods. Let’s build more of them.

Amen.

Medieval manuscripts at the Getty
While we live in the allegedly hippest neighborhood in America, home of the Silver Lake Shaman (Please read Jenni Avins hilarious article on the Silver Lake Shaman phenomenon), Kelly and I are more Medievalists than fans of the straw hat, $10 juices and hanging houseplant accoutrements of the SLS. So head thee to the 405 freeway adjacent Getty for two exhibits of (mostly) illuminated manuscripts. We were there, in part, to look for source material for a new Root Simple publishing concept. Stay tuned.

Bats and Brews
This Wednesday we attended Friends of the LA River’s second Bats and Brews event. The evening began with a beer and taco at the Frogtown brewery followed by a stroll down to the LA River with a wildlife biologist armed with a bat detector. The river was beautiful at sunset and I got to see a bat skimming the surface of the water. I think that there will be another Bats and Brews event in August though they haven’t listed it on the website yet. Check back on the FOLAR website and come down to the river in August! Thank you Chelsea and James for the tip!

Pollinators and Power

Beekeeper and activist Terry Oxford has a great new podcast called Pollinators and Power. The premiere episode features Professor Dave Goulson of Sussex University. Goulson is the founder of the Bumblebee Conservation Trust and author of many books on native pollinators including A Sting in the Tale, A Buzz in the Meadow, Bee Quest and The Garden Jungle. You can read a transcript of the conversation and subscribe to the podcast using your favorite app.

Terry Oxford was a guest on episodes 107 and 109 of the Root Simple Podcast.

RIP Susan Rudnicki

I’m saddened to report the passing of beekeeper Susan Rudnicki who was a guest on episode 102 of our podcast.

Susan was a tireless activist for local bees and for treatment-free beekeeping. She provided free bee removal services for the city of Manhattan Beach until, unfortunately, she was replaced by a pest control company. And it was Susan who tipped me off to the world of scam bee removal services and sent me regular updates on the story.

Like me, Susan promoted the benefits of robust and mite-resistant Africanized bee stock and worked to debunk the “killer” myths associated with them. For this activism she faced appalling sexism and condescension from the pseudo-scientific mainstream beekeeping establishment and journals. I spent the morning going through the emails she sent me over the past few years and I think I need to do a series of posts on them such as one that I missed which links the editor of a major bee magazine to pesticide manufacturers. I can hear her bold, uncompromising spirit in those emails.

Rob McFarland of HoneyLove says in Facebook,

I lost a good friend today who I loved dearly, and the world lost one of the finest beekeepers to ever wear the veil. Susan was the smartest, fiercest, and most passionate defenders of honeybees I’ve ever been blessed to know. I taught her to rescue bees, taking her on her cutout. I warned her how addictive bees are, and told her I could see her catching bee fever. She almost immediately surpassed me in every aspect of beekeeping, and soon became the person I turned to for mentorship, wisdom, and analysis. She taught me so much about bees and how to fight for what’s right and just. She was formidable in every respect, and she held us all to her incredibly high standards. I’ll miss you Susan Rudnicki, but I’ll never forget the impression you made on my life and the massive dent you made in the world. Now we must conduct the age old tradition of ‘the telling of the bees’ so they may be put into mourning and carry on her tremendous legacy. Love you Susan

Charles Napier, The Widow, 1895.

In Susan’s honor let us all tell the bees.

130 Farm Unfixed with Jessica Rath

In her work artist Jessica Rath examines, as she puts it, “how human containment of the land effects non-human species from the propagation of agricultural plants to the sensoria of bees.” She is on the faculty of the Art Center College of Design and her previous projects include works about apple breeding, co-evolutionary communication between flowering plants and their pollinators and a long term project called Farm Unfixed that we spend most of this conversation discussing. During the podcast Jessica mentions,

You can look at Jessica’s work on her website at jessicarath.com. Sign up for her newsletter to find out about upcoming projects.

If you’d like to leave a question for the Root Simple Podcast please call (213) 537-2591 or send an email to [email protected] You can subscribe to our podcast in the iTunes store and on Stitcher. Closing theme music by Dr. Frankenstein. A downloadable version of this podcast is here.