|Our sulky Siberian...
Oggie the Siberian cat was not impressed by the fact that he longer had access to his favourite items of furniture in the house to sprawl out on, perch on or occupy in one feline way or another. Even his choice table from which he devotedly spied on the blackbirds' activity finally went off to the new address and then we were just down to the basics before the longest house-move in history came to an end! He did seem amused yet bemused in the first stages of the mass sort-out as cupboards and wardrobes were emptied of their contents. All of us were pleased to rediscover long-lost items that re-surfaced from behind and below and beyond various parts of the house. The cat was particularly happy to find numerous Christmas decorations that he had ravaged off the Christmas tree.
He seemed to sulk a little in the initial packing-and-panic process but then appeared to take a more philosophical stance on the whole issue, as indeed we all did.
|Detail from A boy and a girl with a cat and an eel. Judith Leyster 1635
During the boxing-up of belongings I came across a postcard that represents a rather cheesed-off cat, and thought the resemblance was quite striking between the cat shown and our sulky Oggie. I just love the general exasperated expression of the poor cat! I initially thought my picture was just an animal portrait, but in fact the cat is just one of the three characters in the original painting - the other two protagonists being mischievious children busy irritating the cat in question!
|A boy and a girl, with cat. Judith Leyster 1635
As is apparent from the style of the piece, it is work from the Dutch Golden Age in art - during 17th century. In such genre paintings and still lives reflecting contemporary life and questioning Life in general, it was common to depict children in order to show the foolishness and foibles of human (adult) behaviour. The message here would perhaps be, 'He who plays with fire gets burnt', or in this case, scratched. The unhapppy cat prepares his sharpened claws to silence the children and put an end to their relentless teasing as the young innocents play with their furry friend using an eel. While the style of the painting is indeed reminiscent of the work of Frans Hals, what is interesting to note here is that the artist was, in fact, a women. This in itself was quite a mean feat, for relatively few artists were female, but the fact that this painter, Judith Leyster (1609-1660), met with considerable success during her creative period is more remarkable still. Leyster was one of the renowned genre painters of the era, with her lively scenes of daily life, yet her fame was to diminish after her death to the point that many of her works were even attributed to her contemporary male artists. Her work reflected the style of the Utrecht school wherein dramatic play of light - chiaroscuro - reminiscent of Caravaggio - brought out elements of each scene to great effect. However, unlike her male counterparts Leyster would emphasise the more jovial aspects of the social scene depicted, or otherwise give a more 'feminine' interpretation to a situation...
|The Proposition. Judith Leyster 1631
In The Proposition, the expression of the woman makes it clear that she finds the presumably lecherous proposition in question as unappealing and irritating as the children's game is for the cat in A boy and a girl with a cat. Just how much Leyster's artistic style 'owed' the great Hals (1582-1666) is questionable. For a time the two artists appeared to share the same type of subject matter, with scenes of taverns, musicians, card-players and general merry-makers abounding, as the artists' creative periods overlapped.
|Self portrait 1630
With a touch of pride perhaps, she signed her work JL and used the symbol of a lodestar to link the two letters, referring back to the name leyster, and also pointing to her role as a leading star. As an indication of her success Leyster had several students working under her in her workshop and in fact Hals is said to have poached one of Leyster's students for his own benefit. Despite a shining, prolific period of productivity from 1629-1635 her life of considerable creativity, talent and independance was to change dramatically. Following her marriage to a fellow artist, Jan Molenaer, and the subsequent arrival of several children Leyster's artistic production faded, as the lodestar lost its creative lustre. In devoting herself largely to her role of wife and mother Leyster had insufficient time and energy for her art which fell into the shadows and her name into relative oblivion.
|Cat by Louis Wain.
Traditionally at least, the woman takes a central position in the family constellation to the extent that while she gains through the complexity and wealth of the lives that gravitate around her, her own individual identity as a sole being is largely compromised. This situation is even more marked for female artists, perhaps, however, it is not one reserved solely for women.... artistic or not. Louis Wain (1860-1939) was an individual whose existence was largely shaped by the demands made of him by his widowed mother and her large brood of spinster daughters (five in all). Obliged to provide for this matriarchal household on the death of his father, Louis Wain became a freelance artist specializing in animal and landscape studies and was to go on to marry his sisters' governess. The marriage was, alas, short-lived as the new Mrs Wain soon became ill with cancer and was to die three years after their wedding. However, just as Wain's female charges affected his life, his duties as devoted husband were to lead him to his true field of creativity - one that would define his career, his own persona and, tragically, maybe even his mental state.... Cats!
Using the family cat, Peter, to entertain his sick wife, Wain dressed the animal in costumes and persuaded it to perform tricks - often imitating human activities such as reading - all of which he would capture in numerous feline sketches. At a time when a cat was solely a beast to kill vermin, rather than the endearing household companions we take them for today, this was quite unusual, and surely Wain had a part to play in this change of perception.
He was to become the chairman of the National Cat Club at the turn of the century and its logo today is still based on work provided by the artist.
|Cat Club logo
Wain acknowledged Peter's contributions "To him properly belongs the foundation of my career, the development of my initial efforts". The anthropomorphised cats that figure in Wain's drawings from the late 1880's are largely an extension of these early works and were met with great appreciation from the Victorian public - adults and children alike. Indeed, as Victorian sentimentality grew these images were devoured in greeting card form or as book illustrations. Wain's cats would ironically reflect the human behaviour of contemporary society - so that the frequently fickle fashions, fads and fancies were satirically portrayed to great success - a little like a feline Dutch genre work.
|Louis Wain - Images used to show the progression of his mental illness.
When Wain's sad condition became public knowledge several famous figures intervened - H.G Wells and the Prime Minister being just two examples - and sought to have Wain transferred from the impoverished pauper's psychiatric ward to a more suitable institution. So it was that Wain was to spend the last fifteen years of his life surrounded by hospital gardens with their resident collection of cats, enabling him to continue his art in relative peace, even as his mental health diminished further.
|Alice and the Chesire cat by David Tenniel.
So, this leads me onto a final illustrated cat - whose grin certainly seems a little more enigmatic and maybe a little dangerous to me now.... The Chesire cat from Alice in Wonderland, by Victorian artist David Tenniel.
And here's Oggie, who positioned himself on my laptop of his own free will, making the most of the hot air coming from the ventilation grid on the computer - rapidly overheating - as if to prove that he too can manage a keyboard, albeit it in his own fashion, just as we humans can. As H.G Wells said," English cats that do not look and live like Louis Wain cats are ashamed of themselves". Judging by his expression, our Anglo-Siberian-French feline is most proud of himself!
|Oggie warming himself...