A Dog’s Purpose

“It seems that nature has given the dog to man for his defense and for his pleasure. Of all the animals it is the most faithful : it is the best friend man can have.”

Voltaire, 1764

Apart from a brief respite in the autumn of 2020, museums and galleries have remained shut for a year. Fortunately, in the digital era, we do not need to travel to places to enjoy exhibitions and admire artworks. Many public establishments have online presences, through which they connect with those who cannot visit in person. Google Arts & Culture assisted these organisations by amalgamating online exhibitions into one place. This allows individuals to take virtual trips to museums and galleries all over the world. Not only this, Google developed some digital displays too, such as Paw-some Paintings, which celebrates canine companions in art.

As Frederick the Great of Prussia (1712-86) once said, a dog is a man’s best friend. The creatures have appeared in artworks for thousands of years, including on the walls of caves. Since the 19th century, artists depicted dogs as loving, gentle creatures, symbolising protection, loyalty and faithfulness. Before then, “dogs are rarely depicted as faithful or as man’s best friend, but as vicious, ravening, or watchful.” (Oxford English Dictionary) Until dogs became pets and companions, they were bred for hunting, tracking and guarding. Nonetheless, Google Arts & Culture has found ten artworks spanning several centuries that show humans have always loved these furry creatures. 

Marble statue of a pair of dogs

During an excavation of Civita Lavinia, an ancient city near Rome, Italy, archaeologists discovered two similar marble statues of a pair of dogs. Although it is not possible to determine the date of production, the British Museum estimates it between the 1st and 2nd century AD. Gavin Hamilton (1723-98), a Scottish artist and archaeologist, discovered the dogs where he believed a palace belonging to the Roman emperor Antoninus Pius (AD 86-161) once stood. Recent discoveries have disproved this theory, but Hamilton sold one of the statues to English antiquary Charles Townley (1737-1805) under this impression. After Townley’s death, his family sold the dogs and other items in his collection to the British Museum, where they remain today.

This pair of dogs, thought to be male and female, portray a tender, loving embrace. Compared to other statues found in the vicinity of Civita Lavinia, they represent peace rather than violence. A sphinx with a dog’s body and a statue of Greek hero Actaeon attacked by hounds are two examples of typical canine sculptures from the Roman Empire. The man’s best friend concept came much later, but this marble statue proves sculptors did not only view the animals as predators trained to hunt but as loving, caring creatures.

Portrait of a Noblewoman – Lavinia Fontana (1552-1614)

Lavinia Fontana’s portrait of an unknown Bolognese noblewoman emphasises her ability to depict luxurious clothing and jewellery in exquisite detail. Although the sitter is the main subject of this Mannerist painting, the eye travels to the small dog in the left-hand corner. Presumably a lap dog, due to its size, the animal has significance in this portrait aside from being the lady’s animal companion. During the 16th century, dogs represented marital fidelity. During this era, brides tended to wear red, so the noblewoman’s wealth, clothing and pet are suggestive of a recent marriage.

Portrait of a Noblewoman (c.1580) is not Fontana’s only painting to feature a canine friend. During her career, she produced over 100 paintings, including mythology and genre paintings, but mostly portraits of wealthy men and women. Portrait of a Lady with Lap Dog (1595) suggests smalls dogs represented the wealth of the sitter. For hunting and guarding, men needed large, fast dogs, whereas a tiny dog had little to contribute to the family other than provide comfort and companionship. Portrait of the Gozzadini Family (1584) depicts a senator sitting at a table with his daughters and son-in-laws. On the table sits a dog of similar size and appearance to the dog Fontana painted in other portraits. Portrait of the Maselli Family also features the same dog, this time in the arms of the mother.

The Painter and His Pug – William Hogarth (1697-1764)

The Painter and His Pug is a self-portrait by the English artist William Hogarth. Although not completed until 1745, x-rays reveal the artist began painting during the 1730s. Many alterations took place through the process, including a change of clothes and the addition of books by Shakespeare (1564-1616), Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) and John Milton (1608-74). Critiques suggest these volumes indicate Hogarth’s attitudes towards literature, drama and poetry. One of the last things added to the portrait was Trump, Hogarth’s pet pug whose features resemble those of its owner. Some suggest Hogarth intended the dog to represent his pugnacious character. 

The pug, named Trump, was one of many owned by Hogarth during his lifetime. Records state the artist once named a dog “Pugg”, but the names of any others are unknown. Pugs frequently appear in Hogarth’s paintings, including group portraits of the Fountaine (1735) and Strode (1738) families. It is unlikely the pugs belonged to either family, instead, Hogarth included it as a trademark, thus earning him the nickname the “Painter Pugg”. A pug featured in one of the scenes of Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress (1732-34) plus in a portrait of Lord George Graham (1715-47), a Scottish officer of the Royal Navy. 

So synonymous was Hogarth with pugs, French sculptor Louis-François Roubiliac (1702-62) produced a terracotta model of Trump to accompany a statue of the artist. In 2001, Ian Hislop (b.1960) and David Hockney (b.1937) unveiled a statue of Hogarth in Chiswick. Made by Jim Mathieson (1931-2003), the sculpture features the artist in a similar outfit to his portrait with Trump sat at his feet.

A young lady holding a pug dog – François Boucher (1703-77)

A stark contrast between A young lady holding a pug dog by François Boucher with Hogarth’s painting is the physical features of the dog. Today, the breed is recognised for its distinctive wrinkly, short-muzzled face and curled tail. Trump’s face does not fit this description, suggesting that either Hogarth could not draw pugs or the animal was a cross-breed. Alternatively, until the 18th-century, when it became popular to own a pug, many people referred to ugly canines as pugs. It is for this lack of beauty that Boucher included a pug in his portrait of a young lady.

“The little Pug dog or Dutch mastiff has quitted London for Padua, I perceive. Every carriage I meet here has a Pug in it.” So said Welsh author Hester Piozzi (1741-1821) during a trip to Italy in 1789. Bred as lap dogs, pugs became the most desired companions of wealthy women across Europe. Rococo painter Boucher used the animal to contrast with his sitter’s beauty in A young lady holding a pug dog (c.1740). The lady in question is Boucher’s wife Marie-Jeanne Buseau (1716-96), dressed in the silks and fashions of 18th-century France. The paleness of skin accentuated with rouge, a beauty spot, and powdered hair was the epitome of beauty, but to emphasise this further, Boucher included her ugly pug as a contrast. At this time, dogs also had sexual connotations in paintings, but critics do not believe this to be the case in this portrait. 

Nude Woman with a Dog – Gustave Courbet (1819-77)

An example of a dog representing sexual relationships is Nude Woman with a Dog (1862) by Gustave Courbet. The nude model, Courbet’s mistress Léontine Renaude, leans towards the dog as though to give it an affectionate kiss. At the time of its first exhibition, critics described this painting as highly erotic. 

The woman’s body echoes the works of Titian (1488-1576), but her face is plain and ordinary. Courbet tried to bring the classical nude to the modern-day by removing the goddess-like beauty from the image. In Titian’s day, a small dog symbolised fidelity, but the model’s interaction with the animal breaks this definition. Although the painting does not suggest that she is in love with the dog, the signs of affection erase the innocence from the picture, replacing it with the metaphor of sensual love. Responding to the attention, the dog represents a complicit lover.

Still Life with Three Puppies – Paul Gauguin (1848-1903)

Whilst living with experimental painters in Brittany, Paul Gauguin painted Still Life with Three Puppies (1888). The canvas is divided into three parts: a still-life of fruit, a diagonal barrier of wine glasses, and three puppies drinking from a large pan. This artwork marks Gauguin’s transition from Impressionism to the experimental style of his contemporaries, such as Émile Bernard (1868-1941) and Vincent van Gogh (1853-90). 

Whilst still-life paintings tend to depict the scene in front of the artist, the inclusion of the wine glasses and puppies suggest Gauguin painted this particular artwork either from his imagination or from several sources. The wine glasses are disproportionate to the scale and perspective of the image, and the puppies appear to be on the table, suggesting they are doll-size creatures.

Gauguin’s new style is more evident when looking at the puppies rather than the other elements. He painted them with a blue outline, and their fur appears to be the same texture as the table cloth. Gauguin declared art is created “from nature while dreaming before it.” This observation explains the unrealistic qualities of the three animals. Gauguin also drew inspiration from Japanese art, which tended to have a two-dimensional viewpoint.

Howling Dog – Paul Klee (1879-1940)

Paul Klee goes a step further with his unrealistic painting of a Howling Dog (1928). Rather than depicting an accurate appearance of a dog, Klee focused on sound. With meandering lines, Klee drew the shape of a dog howling at a moon. The dog’s howl is also visualised in the same manner and accentuated by swirling colours. 

The howl, rather than the dog, is the dominant feature of the painting. Although painting is a visual medium, Klee tried to combine another of the senses. Life is both a visual and aural experience, and Klee is inviting the audience to try to hear his work as well as see it. A painting of a dog is usually static and posed, but in reality, dogs are full of movement and noise. While looking at Howling Dog, people can imagine the baying sound breaking the silence of the night. It is as though the dog is telling the world he is there, that he exists.

Children with taco – Diego Rivera (1886-1957)

Mexican artist Diego Rivera created many murals for the Secretariat of Public Education. Children with taco (1932) is a lithograph of one section of a mural, which Rivera wished to save in case of any damage to the original. The print shows a young boy eating a taco while a hairless dog sits patiently waiting for a crumb to fall. This dog, a Xoloitzcuintle, receives attention for its hairlessness and wrinkles, and since 2016, it is a cultural heritage and symbol of Mexico City.

Both Rivera and his wife, Frida Kahlo (1907-54), depicted the Xoloitzcuintle in their artwork. As well as being popular pets, the history of the breed dates back to the Aztecs. The name Xoloitzcuintle comprises Xolotl, the Aztec sun god, and “itzkuintli”, which means both “dog” and “slave”. According to Aztec religion, a Xoloitzcuintle accompanied the deceased along the path to the afterlife. For this reason, the Aztecs kept dogs as pets, which they then slaughtered and buried with their masters.

While their masters lived, Xoloitzcuintles served as guard dogs. Rather than guarding houses against intruders, the dogs protected their owners from evil spirits. The Aztecs also believed Xoloitzcuintles aided healing and often allowed the dogs to sleep in their beds. In some instances, this is true because a dog’s warmth can help relieve pain from arthritis and bring comfort to the distressed. There is also evidence of a dog’s presence normalising blood pressure. The more obscure health properties of a Xoloitzcuintle included curing toothache, headaches, asthma, and gastrointestinal problems.

Dogs – Hashimoto Kansetsu (1883-1945)

The peonies in a painting by Hashimoto Kansetsu are typical of nihonga (20th-century Japanese paintings). The dog, on the other hand, is inspired by western cultures. The artwork belongs to a series called Dogs from Europe, in which the artist combined traditional Japanese art with modern animal themes. In Japanese art, peonies and lions usually featured together, but Hashimoto daringly replaced the wild animals with dogs.

In Japan, peonies are known as the King of Flowers and represent bravery, fortune and honour. In China, where Hashimoto spent some time each year, the flowers represented wealth and were a favourite of past Emperors. Lions symbolise power, protection and strength, but the meaning of dogs is more ambiguous. In Japanese folklore, a racoon dog is a mischievous creature and a master of disguise. By replacing a lion with a dog, Hashimoto not only introduced elements of the western world to his artwork but also moved away from long-standing Japanese traditions.

Hashimoto fell in love with Europe after a trip in 1921, including a love of European animals.Throughout his career, Hashimoto owned up to 50 dogs, which he studied carefully for his paintings. Many breeds came from Europe, which made his artworks unusual to Japanese spectators.

Puppy – Jeff Koons (b.1955)

The final artwork Google Arts & Culture included in their online exhibition is a 40-foot high West Highland terrier made from flowers. Jeff Koons produced Puppy (1992) for the Kaldor Public Art Project in 1995, where it stood outside Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art. Today, the floral sculpture stands guard outside the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, where it fills viewers with awe.

Koons intended the public sculpture to instil confidence and security, plus entice and create optimism. Others have derived alternative meanings from the artwork, including references to past and present eras. Koons used a computer to design the giant model, whereas the flowers resemble an 18th-century garden. It is also a combination of high and low brow culture, topiary and dog breeding being high and greeting card images low.

West Highland terriers are not the usual choice for guard dogs, but they are known for their loving heart and loyalty. They are typically small, making them an ironic choice for a large sculpture, but they are also friendly-looking and comforting. Today, most people identify the artwork as a symbol of love and happiness.

As Google Arts & Culture proved, dogs have been part of human culture for centuries. Whether serving as hunters or companions, dogs appear in artworks across the world. Other animals also appear in paintings, but it is typically dogs that sit patiently at the feet of their masters or on the laps of their mistresses, providing protection and love. Admittedly, not everyone is keen on dogs yet, in the United Kingdom, there are over 10.1 million pet dogs, suggesting 24% of the population own one, which is more than any other animal. So, was Frederick the Great of Prussia right when he stated a dog was man’s best friend? Perhaps we should ask a dog. Woof!

To view the Google Arts & Culture exhibition, click here.


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Spot the Cat

When the world closed down around them, museums began to embrace technology, producing virtual exhibitions that people could visit from the comfort of their homes. Teaming up with museums all over the world is UMA – Universal Museum of Art, an online platform that uses virtual reality to show exhibitions made by specialists at different establishments. In collaboration with RMN-Grand Palais, UMA has designed an exhibition in a virtual eighteenth-century mansion about one of the internet’s favourite subjects: cats.

Cats in Art History combines 75 works of art to demonstrate the appearance of cats from antiquity to our times. There are cats hidden in all of the paintings, whether they are big, small, cuddly, playful, tigers or kittens. They appear in all sorts of scenes, often where they are least expected. Cats have often been associated with extraordinary power, for example, fictional wicked witches usually have a cat. In Ancient Egypt, felines were worshipped as a god, however, in other religions, a cat may be likened to the devil. Cats in religious art usually hold significant meaning, for example, treason or bad luck. Since they are independent creatures, some cultures have deemed them untrustworthy.

Of course, not every painting containing a cat has an obscure or negative meaning. Cats were companions of many artists who isolated themselves in their studios. Cats were and still are cuddly companions of both children and adults. Whatever the artists’ intentions, cats can add a bit of fun to art, particularly when they are not spotted straight away.

Here are a few examples of the paintings in the UMA exhibition. Look out for the cats.

Hanging of Seigniorial Life: Reading (c.1520)

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Hanging of Seigniorial Life: Reading

This is a tapestry from a series called La Vie Seigneuriale (The Nobleman’s way of life) that was woven in France during the early 16th century. The figures, who are dressed in Italian fashions that had become popular in France, are thought to be a Lord and Lady going about their daily activities. The Lady’s activity appears to be spinning wool.

The tapestry’s background, a typical design from the 15th and 16th century, is known as the millefleurs (Thousand Flowers) style. It features a pattern of flowers and leaves with the occasional bird. This may have been inspired by an old tradition of scattering cut flowers on the ground on special occasions. This style was later adopted by William Morris (1834-96) and is still used by Morris & Co. today.

lw1290_the_lecture_6Spot the Cat: The tiny cat almost goes unnoticed between the plants in the background of the medieval-style tapestry. He is playing with a thread from the Lady’s spindle, which hangs by her feet. During the Middle Ages, cats were a symbol of femininity, which may be one reason for its inclusion in the tapestry. Its behaviour, however, suggests an alternative meaning of slyness and cunning. This was a trait assigned to cats in many medieval bestiaries.

The cat is not the only animal in the tapestry. On the Lady’s lap is a tiny dog, which peers down to see what the cat is doing. Despite its small stature, it is as though the dog is guarding his mistress and keeping an eye on anything that could cause her harm. The actions of both cat and dog, however, go unnoticed by the couple in the tapestry. It is almost as though they have been frozen in time in a static tapestry, whereas the cat and dog look as though they could move at any moment, thus adding a little humour and cheerfulness to the scene.

The Wedding Feast at Cana – Paolo Veronese (1528-88)

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The Wedding Feast at Cana – Veronese

Paolo Caliari, also known as Paolo Veronese, was an Italian Renaissance painter based in Venice. He is remembered for his large history paintings of mythological and religious stories, of which The Wedding Feast at Cana is one. Painted in the Mannerist style, the artwork was commissioned by the Black Monks of the Order of Saint Benedict in 1562 for their new refectory. Veronese was instructed to paint “the history of the banquet of Christ’s miracle at Cana, in Galilee, creating the number of [human] figures that can be fully accommodated”.

The Wedding Feast at Cana depicts the New Testament story of the wedding Jesus, his mother and his disciples attended in the Gospel of John 2:1-11. It is also the scene of Jesus’ first miracle. At the wedding party, the host ran out of wine to serve the guests but Jesus told him to fill the containers with water. Miraculously, the water became wine.

Veronese positioned Jesus at the centre of one of the tables, looking out of the painting at the viewer. Either side of him is his mother and disciples, seated in a similar way to paintings of the Last Supper. Yet, Jesus’ party is relatively small in comparison to the number of people at the wedding feast – 123 people in total. Whilst Jesus is, arguably, the most important figure in the painting, Veronese included several famous faces amongst the guests. These include Eleanor of Austria (1498-1558), Francis I of France (1494-1547), Mary I of England (1516-58), Suleiman the Magnificent (1494-1566) and the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (1500-58).

Öèôðîâàÿ ðåïðîäóêöèÿ íàõîäèòñÿ â èíòåðíåò-ìóçåå Gallerix.ruSpot the Cat: The cat is in the bottom right-hand corner of the painting where it is caught mid-movement, sharpening its claws on a silver amphora. The cat is indifferent to the party and is more concerned with its own comfort. It is not, however, the only animal in the painting. Dotted around the scene are dogs of various sizes and breeds. Only one dog looks in the direction of the cat, but he may be too engrossed in the servant pouring wine into the amphora rather than the cat nearby. One tiny dog can be seen walking on one of the tables.

In religious paintings, cats are usually a reference to the devil or sin. Whilst Satan does not play a part in this story, the amphora the cat is playing with is decorated with an image of a Satyr, a symbol of drunkenness and infidelity. Yet, when cats and dogs both feature in a religious painting, there is often an alternative meaning. Dogs are sometimes used to represent Jesus’ disciples, and that is likely the case in The Wedding Feast at Cana. The cat, however, represents one particular disciple, Judas, the one who betrayed Jesus. Dogs are seen as loyal, friendly creatures, hence the connection to the eleven disciples. In this instance, the cat represents treason and disloyalty.

Historical Hanging of Scipio: the Tessin Battle – Giulio Romano (1492-1546)

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Historical Hanging of Scipio: the Tessin Battle – Giulio Romano

Giulio Pippi, better known as Giulio Romano, was a painter, architect and decorator of the Mannerist style. Born in Rome, hence his name, Romano was a student of Raphael (1483-1520) and was the only Renaissance artist to get a mention in a Shakespearean play. “That rare Italian master, Julio Romano.” (The Winter’s Tale, Act V, Scene II)

The tapestry is based on a cartoon produced by Romano for a set of twenty-two panels depicting the heroic deeds and triumph of Scipio Africanus (236-183 BC). “Scipio the Great”, as he is sometimes known, was the son of the leader of the Romans in the Second Punic War, also known as the War Against Hannibal. This particular scene, which is based on Livy’s (64 BC-AD 12) account in his book History of Rome, took place at Tessin or Ticinus on the bank of the River Ticino in northern Italy. Although the Roman’s eventually beat the Carthaginian Army, led by Hannibal (247-183 BC), this battle scene shows the Romans on the losing side. The Carthaginian’s attacked on horseback, giving the Romans neither time nor space to throw their javelins. If 18-year-old Scipio Africanus had not been on the field to rescue him, his father would not have survived the battle.

04-22_12-533602Spot the Cat: The cat does not appear in the scene of the battle but rather on the edge of the frieze. The frame is decorated with flowers, fruit, birds, dancing children and a single cat. All these images are a complete contrast to the bloody battle. They represent what the men will receive at the end of the war: peace. The images are also symbols of hope, courage and freedom, thus the cat is supporting the Roman warriors. Unfortunately, the cat is looking away from the scene, perhaps indicating the Romans’ defeat, and has its eyes on something it finds far more interesting: a small rodent.

Kitchen Table with Prey, Fish and Vegetables – Frans Snyders (1579-1657)

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Kitchen Table with Prey, Fish and Vegetables – Frans Snyders

Kitchen Table with Prey, Fish and Vegetables is typical of the paintings by Frans Snyders or Snijders, who was one of the leading artists in Antwerp at the turn on the 17th century, alongside Rubens (1577-1640) and Van Dyck (1599-1641). Snyders initially devoted himself to painting flowers, fruit and still life but later began to focus on animals, making him one of the earliest animaliers. Arguably, his earliest works feature animals since his market scenes often included dead animals in the stages before they were prepared as food. Snyders also included a few live animals as a contrast between animate and inanimate objects.

Some art critics have interpreted Snyder’s paintings as a propagandistic message in favour of the Spanish who ruled over Flanders at the time. Antwerp was a wealthy area full of luxuries that were supposedly supplied by the Spanish, therefore, suggesting they were superior to the Protestant Flemish government. On the other hand, apart from being one of the Antwerpen artists who assisted Rubens in a large commission for decorations for the hunting pavilion Torre de la Parada of Philip IV of Spain (1605-65), Snyders appeared not to have any other dealings with Spain.

04-10_95-014361Spot the Cat: There is more than one cat in this painting: one adult and three kittens. Standing on its back paws, the adult cat has decided to help herself to the peacock on the left side of the paintings. Whilst she drags the bird off the table by its neck, her kittens wait by a basket for their meal. One of the kittens is attempting to follow in his mother’s footsteps, pouncing on a small bird that has fallen onto the floor.

The actions of the cat in this painting could be interpreted as a mother looking after her young, however, the inclusion of a small dog asleep on the right side of the painting suggests otherwise. Some infer the dog belongs to the owner of the market stall and has been instructed not to touch the game while his master is away. Being obedient, the dog curled up into a ball and fell asleep, thus not giving in to temptation. The cat, on the other hand, has been tantalised by the peacocks, pheasants, swans and quails. She is either unaware that touching the game is forbidden, or she does not care.

The Painter’s Studio – Gustave Courbet (1819-77)

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The Painter’s Studio – Gustave Courbet

Subtitled A real allegory summing up seven years of my artistic and moral life, this painting is a visual summary of French painter Gustave Courbet’s career as a Realist painter. Courbet and his associates rejected the Romanticism style of the previous century, which was still taught in art schools, and only painted what they could see. Courbet challenged convention by painting unidealised scenes on a scale that was traditionally reserved for religious or historical subjects. His themes included peasants, landscapes, hunting scenes and nudes.

Courbet depicted himself painting a landscape in the centre of The Painter’s Studio, which is being admired by a young boy. The landscape painting is of the Loue River Valley where Courbet grew up. Directly behind him, as though trying to get his attention, is a barely concealed nude woman. She represents Academic art, which Courbet pointedly ignores.

The left side of the painting represents “the other world of trivial life, the people, misery, poverty, wealth, the exploited and the exploiters, the people who live off death”, i.e. the people of everyday life in France. People depicted include a Jewish man and Irishwoman who Coubert met on a trip to London in 1848, a priest, a gravedigger, a merchant and other people of similar professions. Interestingly, the man with the two hunting dogs is not a person living in poverty but rather an allegory for French Emperor Napoleon III (1808-73), who Courbet detested, depicting him as a criminal for, as Courbet believed, illegally owning France. Needless to say, Courbet’s political views often got him in trouble.

Also on the left is a mannequin that has been contorted to resemble the crucified Christ. Religious scenes were a topic belonging to the Academic art styles that Coubert rejected. Art critics have interpreted the figure not only as death but the death of the Royal Academy of Art in France.

The right side of the painting depicts Parisian elites and friends of the artist. Most of the people either inspired Courbet or played a part in the development of his career. Figures include the art critics Champfleury (1821-89) and Charles Baudelaire (1821-67), and Courbet’s patron Alfred Bruyas (1821-77).

bigSpot the Cat: A white angora cat is at the foot of the artist in the centre of the painting where it is playing with a small insect. Being in the centre, it is neither associated with the figures on the left nor the right. Instead, it represents individuality. The cat is one of the few living entities in the painting that is not observing the artist at his work. The carelessness of the cat’s play suggests it does what it wants and does not conform to rules, just like Courbet painted what he wanted and did not restrict himself to the constraints of Academic art. The cat represents neither good nor evil but rather the taste of freedom.

Peasant Family in an Interior – Louis Le Nain (1603-48)

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Peasant Family in an Interior – Louis Le Nain

The Le Nain brothers, Antoine (1600-48), Louis and Mathieu (1607-77) were genre painters and portraitists active in 17th century France. The eldest was a member of the Paris painters’ guild and allowed his siblings to train under him for free. This painting, Peasant Family in an Interior, was produced by the middle brother Louis and is the largest of the three brothers’ “peasant” paintings.

Seated around a table close to the fire are eight members of a peasant family. Half of them look out of the painting as though interrupted by the presence of the viewer; four of the children, however, are engrossed in their activities. In the centre, one boy is playing a tune on a pipe, whilst two children are warming themselves by the fire. One girl stands behind her mother’s chair, and the fifth child, whose attention is on the viewer, is sitting barefoot on the floor.

Louis Le Nain’s main intention was to offer a glimpse into the reality of the life of a peasant family. His ability to handle light in a painting emphasises the dullness of the interior, lit only by the fire and window, which lies somewhere to the right of the painting. The family wear clothes stained with dirt and the children have no shoes, indicating their poor financial situation. Nonetheless, Le Nain is not mocking the family for their way of life, nor is he trying to shock the people of Paris with his portrayal of the lower class. Instead, the family appear content with what they have, which would resonate with the pious and moral teachings of the Catholic church at the time. The size of the canvas, which was usually reserved for religious paintings, makes the family appear important, almost as though the artist is suggesting their way of life is something to which one should aspire.

louvre-famille-paysans-dans-interieurSpot the Cat: The cat lies behind a pot on the floor in the centre of the paintings. Cats were important to peasant and farming families because they were good at catching mice and other vermin. A cat, however, cannot be trained like the dog who sits on the right side of the painting, and will only work when it feels like it, usually putting its own interests first. In this instance, the cat has decided it would much rather keep warm by the pot, which was likely filled with some sort of soup or broth. The cat also keeps a wary gaze on the dog who does not quite seem to fit in with the family, suggesting he may be a new addition to the household.

The Fruit and Vegetable Seller – Louise Moïllon (1609-96)

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The Fruit and Vegetable Seller – Louise Moïllon

Louise Moïllon was a French Baroque painter who, despite being a woman, became one of the best still-life painters of her time. Many of her paintings were purchased by French royalty as well as Charles I of England (1600-49). Known for her use of Trompe l’oeil, Moïllon’s paintings are recognised by the texture of fruit on a dark background, as is the case with The Fruit and Vegetable Seller.

In this painting, a wealthy-looking woman is purchasing fruit from a tired-looking woman, struggling under the weight of a basket of peaches. Moïllon was one of the first artists to combine figures and still-life in one painting and it is interesting to observe how she distinguished between two classes of people. The richer woman is identified by her curled hairstyle and the lace on her dress. The working-class woman’s clothing is less elaborate and her head is covered by a scarf.

ob_ff6121_03-013376Spot the Cat: The cat is resting on the table on the right-hand side of the painting. Initially, the cat does not appear to have a significant meaning, however, some critics believe Moïllon added it as a comical feature. The cat’s facial expression suggests he is unenthusiastic about his surroundings. Unlike the cat in Frans Snyder’s Kitchen Table with Prey, Fish and Vegetables who is helping himself to a bird, this cat is not interested in the fruit and vegetables. Whether intentional or not, the cat appears to be glancing rather sourly towards the viewer or the painter, as though asking why she could not paint something better and more suitable for a self-respecting cat.

The Painter’s Studio – David Ryckaert III (1612-61)

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The Painter’s Studio – David Ryckaert III

David Ryckaert III was a Flemish artist who contributed to genre painting, usually with scenes of peasants or workers, although he later painted aristocratic people and scenes of Hell. It is not certain whether The Painter’s Studio was staged or if the scene was based on Ryckaert’s studio, however, it provides an accurate portrayal of a 17th-century workshop. The artist is seated in the centre, making it clear he is the most important person in the painting – it is his studio. Posing for him is a male model whose likeness can also be seen on the artist’s canvas. Genre artists did not need to set up a tableau from which to paint but built the scene up in stages.

In the background is another painter working on a canvas. Since his features are blurred and his clothing less interesting than the other artist, it is assumed he was an assistant or pupil of the studio. On the right is another assistant who is preparing the pigments for the artist. Unlike today where paints come in tubes, artists had to make their own paints or hire someone to do it for them.

8cc74697d7f6a97972e0235f0b2a37bbSpot the Cat: Behind the artist’s stool, the cat is curled up in a ball, fast asleep. The colours of its fur reflect the hues of the artist’s clothing and painting, subliminally suggesting it belongs to the artist. Whilst the rest of the painting is busy, full of activity and movement, the cat is absorbed in its own world, indifferent to the hustle and bustle around him, thus asserting his independence.

The Reading – Jean-Baptiste Hilaire (1753-1828)

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The Reading – Jean-Baptiste Hilaire

Jean-Baptiste Hilaire was a French artist and student at the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture in Paris. Very little is known about him, however, his work is regularly likened to Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721) who worked a century before Hilaire. Watteau had revived an interest in colour and invented the genre Fête Galante, which often combined women in ball gowns with park and outdoors settings. When Watteau applied to the Royal Academy, his paintings did not fit into any of the traditional categories, which would usually mean rejection. The staff at the Academy, however, liked Watteau’s work so much, they created this genre so that he could join the school. Thus, when Hilaire joined the Royal Academy, this category was there ready and waiting.

The Reading combines a rural setting with the upper-class. The expensive material of the two women’s clothes suggests they are of gentle-birth, as does the water feature in the background of what may be part of their, or at least their father’s, estate. The ladies are also educated since they can read their lengthy correspondence, some of which lies on the ground. There is no indication as to who the letter is from, however, since they have gone into the garden away from prying eyes and ears to read, it could be from a close friend, betrothed or lover.

2013-01-23_09-13-46Spot the Cat: The cat is almost unnoticeable at first, posing like a statue on a pedestal as though it belongs there in the garden. With its face turned towards the viewer, the cat appears to be indifferent to or even bored with the girls and their gossip. Standing so still and motionless, the cat also seems detached from the world, once again suggesting cats are independent creatures with only concerns for themselves.

 

The Orphans – Louis Welden Hawkins (1849-1910)

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The Orphans – Louis Welden Hawkins

Louis Welden Hawkins was a Symbolist artist originally from Stuttgart, Germany, who took on French nationality later in life. Hawkins studied at the Académie Julian in Paris where he chose the path of Symbolism, which was a reaction against Impressionism. Hawkins was also influenced by the British Pre-Raphaelites, who he came across either in his studies or through his British father.

Symbolist painters often emphasised fantasy elements in their artwork, using metaphors and symbols to suggest mystical themes and hidden meanings. Hawkins is mostly remembered for his painting of dreamy female portraits, which are a stark contrast to his painting The Orphans. This sad painting contains two children embracing in front of their parent’s graves, which are slightly hidden by the overgrown grass. The sky is dismal and grey, reflecting the children’s emotions.

Screenshot 2020-06-03 at 14.18.34Spot the Cat: For a Symbolist painting, The Orphans seems rather devoid of symbols except for the silhouette of a ginger cat on the wall at the back of the graveyard. Unlike previous examples where the cat has symbolised evil, indifference or self-absorption, this cat is a sign of the orphans’ fate, left to wander alone without their parents. Where will the children sleep? How will they fend for themselves without a roof over their head or food in their stomachs? Whilst the cat is not necessarily a negative creature, its presence symbolises loneliness, adding to the mournful feel of the painting.

Portrait of Madame M. – Henri Rousseau (1844-1910)

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Portrait of Madame M. – Henri Rousseau

Henri Rousseau was a self-taught painter nicknamed Le Douanier (the customs officer) in reference to his job as a toll and tax collector, from which he retired aged 49 to concentrate on his art full-time. Rousseau claimed he had “no teacher other than nature”, which is why his paintings are described as Naive or Primitive art. Yet, to look at Rousseau’s work, it is hard to fathom what part of nature had inspired him since his figurative style is unrealistic, childish and does not respect the codes of colour and perspective.

Rousseau rarely painted full-length portraits but Portrait of Madame M. is an exception. Here, all traditional principles of perspective are thrown out of the window with Madame M. towering over everything. The trees are too small and the flowers to tall in comparison with each other and the giantess. Rousseau claimed to have invented the new genre of portrait landscapes, composed of a specific view with a figure of a person in the foreground.

It is not certain who Madame M. was, however, the Medici sleeves, bracelets, parasol and scarf suggest she was a wealthy middle-class woman. The painting may have been a commission to rival the traditional society portraits but whether the model was flattered by the dissymmetry of her arms, legs and head remains a mystery.

436px-Henri_Rousseau,_known_as_le_Douanier_-_Portrait_of_Madame_M;_-_Google_Art_ProjectSpot the Cat: Dwarfed by its imposing mistress, the tiny cat is playing with a ball of wool on the edge of the path. Unlike Madame M., the cat is more at home in the natural setting. It also helps to offset the rigidity of the portrait and contrasts with the colour of the woman’s clothing and stormy sky. The cat’s presence adds a sense of playfulness to the painting, without which would make the scene too serious.

Nebamun fowling in the marshes

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Nebamun fowling in the marshes

Nebamun fowling in the marshes is a fragment of a painted bird hunting scene from the tomb-chapel of Nebamun, an official scribe and grain accountant from Ancient Egypt (c.1350 BC). In this scene, Nebamun is shown hunting on the River Nile with his wife Hatshepsut and their young daughter. Nebamun dominates the scene with his huge size, expressing his importance. Fertile marshes were considered symbols of rebirth and the hunted animals a sign of triumph over nature.

The hieroglyphs in the image translate as “enjoying himself and seeing beauty,” which paired with the youthful depiction of Nebamun, hints at what the painters thought or hoped was in store in the afterlife: eternal youth and happiness.

1a64d496c116c8d33d37ce50817735fa9a0a742cSpot the Cat: Appreciated for their talents of catching mice and scaring birds away, cats were prized pets for the Egyptians. This cat, a true hunter, perches on a papyrus reed with a bird caught by the tail feathers in its mouth and two more under each paw.

The cat may have belonged to Nebamun and his family, however, in Ancient Egypt cats were celebrated as gods. In this instance, the cat may represent the Sun-God or the ancient deity Amun who fused with the Sun-God Ra to become Amun-Ra. Nebamun’s name translates as “My Lord is Amun”, which adds considerable weight to this theory.

Jupiter as a Satyr with Antiope and her Twins – Vincent Sellaer (1490-1564)

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Jupiter as a Satyr with Antiope and her Twins – Vincent Sellaer

Vincent Sellaer was a Flemish Renaissance artist known for his mythological and religious subjects. In this painting, he depicts the nymph Antiope of Thebes with her twin sons Amphion and Zethus. Jupiter, the king of the gods, was attracted to Antiope’s beauty and took the form of a satyr to take her by force. Pregnant and worried about the reaction of her father, Antiope ran away to Sicyon where she married King Epopeus. Antiope gave birth to twins, but only one was the son of Zeus; the other was the son of Epopeus. Amphion and Zethus went on to become the founders of Thebes.

Sellaer painted the semi-nude Antiope with her two sons who both have similar hair and complexions. Hugging Antiope from behind are two putti – chubby male children – who were often used in paintings to represent desire and passion. They were also associated with the god of erotic love, Cupid. In the background is a frightening satyr who is really Jupiter in disguise. The putti express the god’s desire for Antiope, the same desire that resulted in the birth of Amphion.

jupiter_satyr_antiope_twins_a_hiSpot the Cat: One of the twins rests his arm on an oversized cat in the bottom left-hand corner of the paintings. Unlike the lustful putti and satyr, the cat’s purpose is to highlight Antiope’s beauty. In Ancient Greece, cats were both good and bad depending on the circumstances. On the one hand, they were considered evil and were associated with Hecate, the goddess of death, darkness and witches. On the other hand, cats were considered symbolic of feminine beauty and love. As in most civilisations, cats were useful creatures who could control vermin, thus protecting the household from plague and disease. After Christianity arrived in Greece, a legend was born that a cat was responsible for protecting the baby Jesus from rodents and snakes.

Christ in the House of Simon the Pharisee – Philippe de Champaigne (1602-94)

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Christ in the House of Simon the Pharisee – Philippe de Champaigne

Philippe de Champaigne was a French Baroque painter who founded the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture, which later became the Académie des Beaux-Arts. Initially inspired by Rubens, De Champaigne’s style became less decorative after working with Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665) who favoured clarity, order and line over colour. Many of De Champaigne’s artworks were based on religious scenes, such as Christ in the House of Simon the Pharisee.

Simon the Pharisee is mentioned in the Gospel of Luke 7:36-50 where he invited Jesus for a meal but fails to show his guest the usual marks of hospitality, for example, washing his feet. During the meal, a sinful woman, sometimes identified as Mary Magdalene, entered the house and anointed Jesus’ feet with a jar of perfume. Outraged at the actions of the woman, Simon protested that the woman was a sinner and unworthy of touching Jesus, however, Jesus contrasted her faith with Simon’s lack of common decency. “Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.” (Luke 7:47)

christ-in-the-house-of-simon-the-pharisee-philippe-de-champaigneSpot the Cat: The cat goes almost unnoticed under the table near Simon’s feet. Sitting there unmoved by the scene around him, it seems at first that the cat is insignificant, however, knowing that cats often represent evil in religious paintings, its presence is symbolic. Having opposed Jesus’ forgiveness of the sinful woman, the cat’s appearance at Simon’s feet may indicate he is on the path to evil. The cat is not the only animal in the scene. A dog, which usually represents the disciples, paws at Simon’s robes as though pleading with him to listen to Jesus’ teachings.

Supper at Emmaus – Titian (1488-1576)

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Supper at Emmaus – Titian

Tiziano Vecelli, or Titian as he is better known, is one of the most celebrated painters of the Renaissance. His work has inspired many painters and the way he portrayed religious scenes became the principal method for artists for over a century. At the end of the 16th century, Biblical feasts were a key theme for painters and Supper at Emmaus was a close second to The Last Supper in popularity. In the lead up to this meal, Jesus joined two men, possibly disciples Luke and Cleopas, on the road to Emmaus but they did not recognise him. It was only when Jesus “took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them” (Luke 24:30) that they realised who he was, at which point Jesus vanished.

Titian’s painting reflects the famous layout in Leonardo da Vinci‘s (1452-1519) The Last Supper with Jesus at the centre of a horizontal table with a view of a landscape behind him. Some critics liken the posture of one of the men to Judas, suggesting he was shocked about Jesus’ return.

Screenshot 2020-06-04 at 15.59.56Spot the Cat: The activity under the table also suggests there is a link between one of the men and Judas. Behind one of the table legs is a cat that is backing away from a dog that is bearing its teeth menacingly, as though trying to scare the cat away from Jesus. The cat’s snake-like tail is another indication of its evil intentions. Many people do not notice the cat at first because it is hidden in the shadows – shadows which almost look like demon wings.

Cats in Art History reveals how cats have been stigmatised for their independence, causing them to become symbols of evil, treason and selfishness. Yet, the exhibition reveals that this is not always the case. Cats can represent positive attributes and many cat-lovers may argue that they can be affectionate creatures. It is interesting how many artists have used cats as subliminal messages, many of which probably go unnoticed today. Thanks to the Universal Museum of Art, a cat’s presence in a painting will be appreciated more by many art viewers. Next time you see a feline in a painting ask yourself, what does it represent? Is it evil? Is it good? Or, does the artist just really like cats?


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