To Be A Cat. In Art
One of the subjects I studied while studying Master's in art history was the image of the cat in 17th-century Dutch painting. Painting at the Dutch gold age was known for its abundance of symbols; Characters, objects, and animals most often represented didactic or other ideas hidden in "subtext". Among them is the cat with high incidence and varied themes. The study examined a selection of paintings in which a cat appears, in order to understand the reason for its appearance and its contribution to the presentation of the message in the painting.
The cat is common in world cultures. He became a popular domestic animal by serving as a pest predator and therefore the barn protector in the village and in the city, protecting the household members from snakes and disease-bearing rats. Hence, the cat gained much appreciation. His modest size and playfulness earned him a special affection and status among the household members. That way the cat has assimilated into western culture, the folklore, the literature, the religion and many fables. The image of the cat appears in the cultures of the world in negative and positive contexts in the extreme contrast that is deeply influenced by social and religious moods.
In visual culture - the cat appears in works of many cultures from ancient times, in a pagan and ritualistic religious context. Later, the cat emerged as an ambivalent motif in Christian art and then in secular art.
The ambivalence towards the cat was also preserved in the culture of the Low Countries, the Netherlands and Flanders; cats were common in homes and loved, but also slaughtered for various ritual purposes. It was associated with popular beliefs, once as a healer and once as satanic, a worthy companion but also representing forbidden passions and dark worlds.
From its widespread presence in human life, the cat also entered folk tales, parables, proverbs and folk traditions in Flemish culture. It appeared in the middle ages in stories of the Church, usually representing vicious monks who abused the innocent public portrayed in rat figures.
In addition, the cat appeared in the the upside down world which was a popular idea, and published in wall papers hung in the village square and outside the city. The parables were depicted in illustrations depicting mocked high-class characters, as they go about the absurd way and are often run by animals. The idea of the opposite world presented the wrongs of man in an entertaining way and gave hope to those who lived a life of poverty and suffering. At the same time, the emblem developed, which was a popular illustration format in Europe in the 16th century. It usually presents a didactic message, using an accompanying illustration with a short text, popular proverb, or a concise message with a moral.
Pieter Bruegel the Elder, in his paintings, used formats that emerged in the illustrations of the opposite world and presented them in large-scale images depicting village life and including masses of characters engaged in various actions, all related to proverbs and fables. Bruegel "took" the familiar parables from popular engravings and "planted" them in Flemish village descriptions, thus creating a kind of realism, unlike traditional parable images that lacked a defined environment. In addition, Bruegel depicts distinctive peasant figures as opposed to the aristocratic figures in the early engravings, and presents actions from their daily lives in a way that images were understandable to the audience on both levels: practical and metaphorical.
In the painting of the Low Countries in the 16th century, secular subjects can be found such as market and kitchen scenes. It was a novelty in western art to present such subjects in large-scale oil painting, where food items and kitchenware appear in the center of the composition. Who is considered a pioneer in this field is the painter Pieter Aertsen. A bit later, in the 17th century, a cat often appears in Dutch painting in various subjects, religious and secular. These paintings identify several recurring types of cat, which play a role within a complex scene.
Thus, in religious paintings, a cat appears in the descriptions of "the fall of man" alongside Adam and Eve, sometimes among other animals and often with a monkey. In other works the cat appeared appeared in images from the lives of Mary and other saints, as well as the descriptions of the Holy Family. Contrary to all this holiness, even in still life paintings, the cat often appears, usually in market and kitchen scenes, among a plethora of food like vegetables and fruits, fish and poultry. He usually sneaks up on food, steals, or fights for loot with other animals.
In addition to the formats mentioned, cats also appear in Flemish Genre (every day scenes) pictures, such as those depicting village, market and kitchen scenes. Many animals appear in these paintings and most often the cat appears in many different situations, passive or active. He is prominent in his many appearances in both exterior and interior descriptions, living and active and frequently interacting with humans; within the Genre pictures, the cat will appear in several types according to the different themes: children's paintings, Merry Company, a lonely woman with a cat, and others. The cat tends to imply a message hidden beneath the seemingly banal surface.
By the way, many generations later, lots of famous cats were born, including Spiegelman's cat in his book "The Mouse: The Story of a Survivor" (Maus I: A Survivor's Tale). The book is a masterpiece, a graphic novel in which the mouse is the main character, representing the victims of the Holocaust, its survivors and the Jews in general. The cat, how awful, represents the Nazis in the book. Does anyone remember who the dog represents in Spiegelman's book?
In the picture attached: Hendrik Goltzius, The Five Senses: Sight, c. 1595, engaraving, size unknown, whereabouts unknowen.