February 01, 2018
By Chelsea Reed
Take a look around on the internet, and it’s easy to see how cats have captured our hearts and imaginations. From their adorable faces and charming independence to their hilarious acrobatic maneuvers, felines have become an internet phenomenon for their funny pictures and videos that brighten anyone’s day. But did you know that cats have also been a popular subject in art since thousands of years ago? Let’s go on an art adventure and see how the beloved feline has been portrayed in art throughout the ages.
At the Beginning – Useful Hunters, Extraordinary Pets
Cats have enjoyed the companionship of their humans since the dawn of civilization. (And yes, to them we truly are ‘their humans’!) Quick reflexes, sharp teeth and claws, and keen night vision made these resourceful animals attractive to mankind for clearing pests from their homes and fields. The rodents and pests, in turn, were an easy food source for the cats. A relationship was forged – cats began living alongside with people and were soon domesticated. Egypt was one of the first civilizations to domesticate felines.
In Egypt, cats were celebrated in hieroglyphic paintings, children’s toys, and famous monuments such as the Sphynx. They were even worshiped as deities with figurine images. It was illegal to export cats out of Egypt, but the prized animals made their way to the Minoans, Etruscans, Greeks, and other ancient societies. The Minoans were the first to express their love of cats from a purely artistic perspective. Felines hunted, posed and frolicked in scenes depicted in frescoes and pitcher reliefs within Minoan palaces. In Greek and Roman art, cats were symbols of freedom and independence. They were commonly presented in mosaics, statues, paintings and tombstones.
The Dark Ages and Medieval Period – Dark Times for Felines
As the fall of the Roman Empire ushered in an era of chaos for Western societies, cats experienced a spiraling downfall in art. Some appeared as decorative details in medieval manuscripts and paintings, but many cats – especially black cats - were seen as symbols of evil or witchcraft in art. Cats were often executed along with suspects during the witch trials in Europe and Colonial America.
But not all societies in the middle ages shared an adverse view toward cats. In the East, cats in China and Japan were happily portrayed in scenes of nature and daily life as woodblock prints. They were beloved by their aristocratic owners so much, that some even made little outfits for them to wear!
Renaissance to Modern Art – The Cat is Restored as Companion
The Renaissance and Enlightenment periods brought hope and a fresh perspective for felines in the West. Various artworks in the Baroque and Rococo periods featured cats in a realistic light, and master artists such as Leonardo Da Vinci, Albrecht Durer, and Rembrandt included cats in their work. This renewed perspective opened the door to a whole new era, and by the 19th and 20th centuries, hundreds of artists were creating works with cats as the main subject. Some artists, such as Picasso and Norman Rockwell, even experimented with them in bold creations.
Today, cats in art now enjoy their restored position as fascinating creatures and endearing companions. They are a common sight in paintings, sculptures, photographs, postcards, and just about every kind of art you can think of. Animation, too, has welcomed the cat since its humble beginnings in the 1930s. The Cat in the Hat, Felix the Cat, Tigger, and Sylvester are some famous felines who have won the hearts of thousands from our television screens and movie theaters. Will the cat continue to hold its popularity in art? By the looks of our time, it’s very, very likely.
Want to learn more about cats in art? Visit the Animals in Art Show at Seaside Art Gallery.
Chelsea Reed is a freelance copywriter. She writes articles, blogs, websites and online content from her base in North Carolina.
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