Simanaitis Says

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CATS IN ART

SUSAN HERBERT STUDIED at the Ruskin School of Art. She worked and painted for the English National Opera and, more recently, has turned to prints of theatrical animals. Like me, Susan is evidently a lover of felines.

Here are tidbits from one of her books on art history, The Cats Gallery of Western Art. I add commentary on the originals gleaned from one place or another. You’re encouraged to follow up on these links, both to admire the originals and also to appreciate Susan Herbert’s artistry in capturing their spirit. 

The Cats Gallery of Western Art, by Susan Herbert, Thames & Hudson, 2002.

The Arnolfini Marriage, 1434, Jan Van Eyck. A quick interpretation of the original is of a prosperous couple celebrating their marriage. However, the story gets considerably more complex: Is the woman pregnant? If so, it might be a celebration of fruitful union painted on the couple’s first anniversary. 

Wikipedia notes that research in the mid-1800s identified the subjects as Giovanni [di Arrigo] Arnolfini and his wife Jeanne Cenami. However, says Wikipedia, “… a chance discovery published in 1997 established that they were married in 1447, thirteen years after the date on the painting and six years after van Eyck’s death.”

Herbert’s feline version shares much of the original’s symbolism—and mystery: Why are the pair wearing typical winter ware when the window at left shows a cherry tree in fruit?

King Tut. Dr. Elizabeth Cummins offers details of Tutankhamun, probable son of Akhnaten, in Smart History, the Center for Public Art.  

Cover of the Coffin of Tutankhamun, c. 1340 B.C.

Tutankhamun’s innermost coffin (there were three) is made of solid gold. Cummins notes, “The gods were thought to have skin of gold, bones of silver, and hair of lapis lazuli—so the king is shown here in his divine form in the afterlife. He holds the crook and flail, symbols of the king’s right to rule.”

National Geographic for Kids observes, “Egyptians believed cats were magical creatures, capable of bringing good luck to the people who housed them. To honor these treasured pets, wealthy families dressed them in jewels and fed them treats fit for royalty.”

According to my pal πwacket, not a great deal has changed in 3362 years.

A Serial Tomcat. When Hans Holbein the Younger painted Henry VIII, the latter was married to his third wife Jane Seymour (with three more yet to come). 

Portrait of Henry VIII, c. 1536, Hans Holbein the Younger. 

Wikipedia notes, “The majestic presence is conveyed through Henry’s aggressive posture, standing proudly erect, directly facing the viewer. His legs are spread apart and arms held from his side in the pose of a warrior or a wrestler. In one hand he holds a glove, while the other reaches towards an ornate dagger hanging at his waist.”

Actually, though, Wikipedia says, “Comparisons of surviving sets of Henry’s armour show that his legs were much shorter in reality than in the painting.”

“Well, sure,” πwacket says, “What king wants himself portrayed as a wimp?”

Victorian Humour. The millais.org website writes, “My First Sermon by John Everett Millais was exhibited at the Royal Academy (RA) in 1863, and on 3 May, at the Academy banquet….In the painting, the poignancy typically comes from guessing it’s all over her head. There is also a touch of humour, which will be more clear in My Second Sermon, which is its later companion piece when the child has stopped trying to concentrate and is seen sleeping.”

Above, My First Sermon, 1863. Below, My Second Sermon, 1864, John Everett Millais. 

The Victorian Web says of My Second Sermon, “This companion piece to My First Sermon might not have pleased the Archbishop of Canterbury quite as much as the earlier painting did, but he gamely resolved that he and his brethren in the church should profit by the lesson it imparted.”

Pal πwacket says there’s nothing wrong with a little catnap. ds 

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2022 

3 comments on “CATS IN ART

  1. Jack Albrecht
    February 14, 2022

    This is wonderful. Thank you! I just ordered a copy of this book for my mom. She’s traveled the world and visited Europe and European art museums dozens if not hundreds of times. She has had a cat or cats in her house for over 50 years.

    Now her memory is fading with Alzheimer’s, and travel is very limited. I hope this will both stimulate her brain and bring her a smile. Thanks again!!!

    • simanaitissays
      February 14, 2022

      Hello, Jack,
      My sincere thanks for this and others of your comments. I too found the book charming.

      • Jack Albrecht
        February 14, 2022

        You’re very welcome! I treasure your blog. You often expand my horizons. I don’t know if Cat Art counts, but it sure is fun and new (for me!). Great content!

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