WWhen Tracey Emin’s cat Docket went missing in 2002, the ‘Lost Cat’ posters she had posted around her neighborhood in East London were stolen and valued at £500. Her gallery, White Cube, argued that they did not count as works, although some art historians have argued otherwise. Whoever you believe, they still pop up on eBay from time to time.
However, it’s Emin’s self-portrait with Docket that I love the most. (That and her handcrafted cat photo book, Because I Love Him, a dream art purchase should I ever make it rich.) In the photo, Docket looks at the camera with that deadpan, slightly sombre expression typical of cats, his impressive whiskers flicking past the fingers of the artist, framing his face as she sniffs him from above. It’s a strikingly motherly image, and indeed Emin has in the past referred to the cat, who has now sadly left this earthly plane, as her “baby”. It appears in a long line of artistic depictions of women or girls with cats.
Cats are almost as old a subject for visual art as art itself – felines have been painted in the cave of Lascaux. In ancient times, they adorned ancient Egyptian tombs and the mosaics of Pompeii. The ancient, ancient association between cats and fertility, and their status as mother goddesses from the ancient Egyptian Bastet to the Greek Hecate, means that women and cats were considered interrelated for millennia. So it’s no surprise that they’ve been combined as subjects so often by everyone from Morisot to Picasso, Matisse to Kirchner, Kahlo to Freud. They appear in annunciations by Rubens, Barocci, and Lotto, representing femininity, domesticity, and sometimes the devil—or what the Jungian psychologist Marie-Louise von Franz calls the “feminine shadow,” the dark side of the Virgin Mary, the mother of god .
It’s no surprise that cats appear so often in paintings: artists often adore them, perhaps because they are so defiant and independent. Plus, it’s easier to paint while caring for a cat than a dog: they don’t need to be walked, though they can still get in the way, like a wonderful picture by the painter Lois Mailou Jones standing by an easel with a kitten on her shoulder shows. Leonor Fini, meanwhile, kept two dozen cats, so it’s no surprise that their fur sometimes merges with the paint on her canvases.
There are some fantastic photos of Fini with her pets. In a 1961 portrait of Martine Franck, her wild dark hair forms an eccentric counterpoint to the refined appearance of the white cat, while in another image she is shown in an evening gown kneeling to feed six cats in her kitchen. The image of Dora Maar is perhaps the most deliberately erotic. Fini wears a kind of low-cut corset and a long-haired black cat is held between her open legs in a visual pun that does not escape the viewer.
As anyone who’s owned one knows, cats are promiscuous and unfaithful, they roam the streets at night in ways women historically couldn’t, and in Japanese art cats and courtesans sometimes go hand in hand. A netsuke even shows two cats that embody the figures of sex worker and client. But meanwhile, she was a cat lady herself, and when Picasso painted his lover with a black cat perched on her shoulder, it could be read as a symbol of her sexual, passionate self. Their relationship was turbulent, and Maar’s claw-like hands seem, to me at least, to refer to a cat’s.
I used these images as a sort of visual mood board while writing my memoir, The Year of the Cat, which is about how adopting a cat changed my mind about motherhood, but also has a strong art-historical thread running through it. the theme of female artists and their cats. One of the first paintings I saw of a woman with a cat was at school, by the artist Gwen John. In Girl with a Cat (1918-22) the subject sits with a black cat nestled in her arms. The young woman stares into the distance, her expression almost desperately sad. The cat, meanwhile, stares straight into the viewer with yellow eyes. John loved her cat, Tiger, and when he went missing, she slept outside hoping to lure him home; like Emin’s Docket nearly a century later, he eventually returned. The love John felt for her cat, when she was so unlucky in love for the more human kind, has moved me ever since.
Two of Picasso’s earlier photographs of women and cats have a similar emotional effect. In his 1900 Woman with Cat, the subject bends over in her bed to the small cat she holds in her arms, as if trying to find comfort in it. Meanwhile, his 1901 Nude with Cats, aka Madwoman with Cats, feels relentless in its portrayal of the vulnerable subject. In my book, I look at the “crazy cat lady” myth, which originated in the fear of witchcraft, and how it has been used to stigmatize single and childless women. This image, painted in an asylum, felt too uncomfortable to include, but I kept it in mind as I wrote.
Much more cheerful are Suzanne Valadon’s cat paintings. Another cat lover – she always fed them caviar – Valadon painted her cat Raminou several times, as well as other cats. While she treats them with the respect befitting a suitable subject for a painting, there is a playfulness to the way she conveys their gritty expressions. She manages to capture the silly haughtiness that is, in essence, the essence of kat. Her photos of women with cats are even better, of which Jeune Fille au Chat from 1919 is my favourite, perhaps because the girl seems so happy to hold the animal, while the animal itself only seems to tolerate the interaction and makes me reminiscent of my own cat Mackerel’s aloof nature.
To see Valadon herself with her cat – in this case a white one – we must rely on Marcel Leprin’s painting of her, in which she bears a formidable expression. She may not have claws, but like the animals she loved so much, Valadon, the daughter of a laundromat who amazed Degas with her talent when she showed him her drawings, was rebellious and not to be trifled with – very different from the subdued dancer. she starred when she modeled for Renoir.
No one will be surprised that male artists use cats as a means to eroticize the objectified female nude. In La Paresse by Félix Vallotton, a naked woman is sprawled on a bed, her hand outstretched to pet the cat. In a photo of Masaya Nakamura, all we can see is the curvature of her backside and her pointy feet as a black cat stares at her genitals. I much prefer Pierre Bonnard’s more humane depiction of an annoyed-looking woman sitting fully clothed at the table with a plate of food while the title’s “demanding cat” harasses her. Or even better, Lotte Laserstein’s 1928 Self-Portrait with a Cat, in which her frontal gaze seems to challenge the viewer while the disgruntled-looking animal she holds on her lap seems ready to pounce if necessary. It’s like they’re both daring you to say something: call Laserstein a crazy cat lady at your peril.
You could say that cats and artists have something in common: both groups have historically reviled themselves and refused to abide by the rules that society tries to impose on them. Women artists are, of course, particularly marginalized, and how to combine a creative career with motherhood remains an eternal question, one of many I pose in my book. Emin, who has no children, has said she would have resented leaving her studio for them if she had any. It would be rude to suggest that a cat could be some kind of surrogate child, if Emin hadn’t made this explicit herself.
Centuries after the witch hunts, the love of women – especially childless women – for cats continues to be mocked and stigmatized to this day. That’s why I’m so excited about Brooke Hummer’s photos, who asked several cat women to pose in the style of period paintings, their styles ranging from 19th century colonial to surreal. These fun, festive images defy the embarrassing stereotype of the cat lady. My favorite is a pastiche of a medieval painting of the Madonna and Child, but instead of a baby, the Virgin Mary is holding a tabby cat. Smile if you like, she seems to be saying, but cat love is true love.