Cats in Art - 17th and 18th centuries


Judith Leyster, one of the few known women artists of the 17th century, was a student of Franz Hal and painted in his style. The little cat in this genre scene appears to wish that it were somewhere else far away from these laughing children.

[1629, Judith Leyster, Laughing Children With a Cat (detail), painting]

Leyster, 1629, Laughing Children With a Cat (detail)
Rembrandt, 1654, The Virgin and Child with Cat

Rembrandt's etching, The Virgin and Child with Cat, shows a cat in an intimate domestic setting with the Holy Family. The etching, of which this is a small detail, is considered a masterpiece that set the standard for all intimate views of maternity portrayed by artists in subsequent centuries. Isn't it nice to be part of a masterpiece?

[1654, Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn, The Virgin and Child with Cat (detail), etching]

Portraying a lively domestic scene, Dutch artist Jan Steen painted The Cat's Dancing Lesson. It's difficult to tell whether the cat is as amused by the experience as the humans around him. Although a few cats will do anything for attention, most of us would find this very undignified behavior.

[17th century, Jan Steen, The Cat's Dancing Lesson (detail), oil on panel]

Steen, 17th century, The Cat's Dancing Lesson
Desportes, c. 1700, A Cat Attacking Dead Game Detailed, almost photo-realistic, still life paintings became highly popular during the 17th & 18th centuries. This still life painting is livened up a bit by the presence of a cat who is about to grab some game for herself.

[c. 1700, Alexandre-François Desportes, A Cat Attacking Dead Game, painting]

Hogarth, 1750, The First Stage of Cruelty

Despite the growing acceptance of the cat as a domestic companion, public abuse of cats for "sport" was not uncommon. William Hogarth, the great artist-commentator on social evils of the 18th century, included a scene depicting the abuse of cats in his series of engravings entitled The Four Stages of Cruelty. This scene shows a group of humans who, after tying two cats together, are betting on which of the cats will survive a fight to the death. Fortunately, this abomination was eventually outlawed.

[1750, William Hogarth, detail from The First Stage of Cruelty, engraving]
The work of the great Spanish painter, Francisco Goya, was full of contempt for the Spanish aristocracy and horror of the corrupt nature of mankind.

In his painting, Don Manuel Osorio de Zuñiga, Goya appears to portray the purity and innocence of a child. However, the child holds a bird captive at the end of a string, teasing the cats who wait for their chance to pounce and devour it.

[1787, Francisco Goya, Don Manuel Osorio de Zuñiga, oil]
Goya, 1787, Don Manuel Osorio de Zuniga
Goya, 1797-98, The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters Goya's observation of the world led him to believe that the eighteenth century philosophers' dream of Reason only produced monsters. His etching, entitled The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, shows a student asleep over his books while the air around him is filled with screech owls and bats.

This etching has been given various interpretations, but it is generally thought that the work represents the "triumph of nightmare." Does the cat represent Goya's belief that Reason, with its inherent power to end the nightmare, sits back and does nothing?

[1797-98, Francisco Goya, The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, etching with aquatint]