Felines figure in art from ancient times to the present
By Kim Campbell Thornton
Andrews McMeel Syndication
One of my favorite things to do when I visit a museum is to seek out the incidental depictions of animals in art. Dogs are easy, but cats, as is their wont, require a little more searching to find. Nonetheless, cats have inspired artists since the beginning of history.
“The smallest feline is a masterpiece,” wrote original Renaissance man Leonardo da Vinci, who filled his sketchbooks with drawings of cats playing, hunting and grooming themselves. With their curves and musculature, vivid eyes, and twitching ears and tails, cats are quintessential artists’ models, beautiful to behold and challenging to draw.
In art, cats symbolize everything from witchcraft and paganism to homey comfort. They are hunters and hearth guardians, protectors of home goods. Later, they came to represent femininity, tenderness and domesticity. Their inclusion in a painting often adds hints of action and intrigue. It’s not unusual to find still lifes depicting cats stealing food -- an exploit any cat lover will recognize.
Probably the earliest known depictions of cats are those on Egyptian frescoes dating to 2000 B.C. Early Egyptians elevated particular animals to godhood based on certain admirable qualities. In the case of cats, their hunting prowess and the corresponding vermin control made them worthy of veneration. Three Egyptian goddesses -- Mafdet, Bast and Sekhmet -- took the forms, respectively, of a panther, cat or lion. Respect for them extended to everyday cats as well, and cats can be found on relief carvings, papyri and tomb walls.
Romans also captured feline hunting skills in art. Last year, I followed up a tour of Pompeii with a visit to Italy’s National Archaeological Museum in Naples. I was entranced by a mosaic from Pompeii’s House of the Faun showing a cat pouncing on a partridge.
At the Getty Villa in Malibu, California, the scene on a terra cotta storage jar from the mysterious Etruscan civilization depicts a young man holding out a bit of food for a cat who is jumping up to snatch it. On vases and tomb paintings of the same period, cats wait expectantly beneath banquet tables and couches. Any modern cat lover could identify with these pieces of art.
While cats look fairly lifelike in ancient art, by the medieval era they often resemble nothing so much as weirdly square and muscular animals, frequently wearing angry or even demonic expressions. That may be a consequence of their association with witchcraft or demons. But that didn’t stop monasteries and convents from keeping them for their hunting ability and, no doubt, companionship. You know how your cat naps on your laptop or walks across your papers while you’re trying to work? Monkish scribes had the same problem. Their cats would walk through ink and across manuscript pages, creating their own art.
In early Chinese civilization, cats were kept as both companions and hunters. Chinese artists appreciated cats for their slinky, curvy silhouettes, and their works depict cats being cats: hunting, exploring or taking a nap.
Japan, too, has a centuries-old tradition of feline art, in particular depictions in ukiyo-e, or woodblock prints, a popular art form that originated in the early 17th century. Cats, which likely came to Japan by way of Chinese trading ships, were trendy subjects. Ukiyo-e showed cats doing cat things -- sleeping, eating, playing -- cats with (and on) people, and cats “as” people, performing acrobatics (not a stretch), acting in plays and wearing fancy clothes (kitty paper dolls, anyone?).
And Godzilla was certainly not the first monster in Japanese storytelling tradition. Well before the giant creature of the deep, cats were depicted as monsters in illustrated books.
Interestingly, ukiyo-e influenced the development of the Impressionist style of art, including, I feel certain, the depiction of cats. A Matisse painting, “The Cat With Red Fish,” captures the same humor and style of cats depicted in ukiyo-e.
What’s your favorite work of art featuring a cat?
Help kids be
Q: My grade school-aged kids are able to walk to school in our neighborhood, which is great, but I want to make sure they are safe if they run into a loose dog. What should they do?
A: That’s a great question. Here's what to teach your children (and it’s good advice for anyone).
-- Never approach a loose dog, even if he seems friendly. Dogs who are confined in yards, and especially those on chains, should also be avoided. Many are very serious about protecting their turf.
-- If a dog approaches, the best response is to “be a tree”: Stand straight with feet together, fists under the neck and elbows into the chest to protect those vulnerable areas. Make no eye contact, since some dogs view that as a challenge. Running is a normal response to danger, but it's the worst possible thing to do around a dog, because it triggers the animal's instinct to chase and bite. Many dogs will just sniff and leave. Teach your children to stay still until the animal walks away, then back away slowly out of the area.
-- Avoid fast or jerky movements around dogs, since these may trigger predatory behavior.
-- If a dog attacks, they should "feed" the dog a jacket or backpack or use a bike to block the dog.
-- Act like a log if knocked down: face down, legs together, curled into a ball with fists covering the back of the neck and forearms over the ears. This position protects vital areas and can keep an attack from turning fatal.
Role-play with your children how to approach dogs, when not to approach and what to do if confronted or attacked. You don't need to scare them, but you do need to make sure they're ready, just in case. -- Mikkel Becker
Do you have a pet question? Send it to email@example.com or visit Facebook.com/DrMartyBecker.
Find a vet when
you’re out of town
-- On the road with a pet and need a vet? Turn to the website of the American Animal Hospital Association. The search feature allows you to plug in where you are and pinpoints veterinary clinics and hospitals in the area that meet the organization's standards for care. The free service is at aaha.org/your-pet/hospital-locator.
-- Want to avoid a bite from your cat? Never let her view you as a plaything, not even when she's an adorable kitten. Wrestling barehanded with your cat or kitten is a no-no, because you're setting a bad precedent. Instead, offer a stuffed sock that your cat can bite, claw and bunny-kick to her heart's content. Give your cat lots of other exercise, too -- frequent sessions that burn youthful energy, such as playing with a wand-type toy. And if you’re petting your cat, watch for the warning signs that she’s had enough. The tail is the key. If your cat starts twitching her tail in a jerky fashion, it's time to stop petting. A good way to help prevent your cat from reaching that overstimulated state is by petting along the side of and under the chin only, avoiding touchier spots like the back or the belly.
-- The fall shedding season is rapidly approaching. Your dog will soon start shedding his summer coat to make way for a heavier winter coat, especially if he’s one of the breeds with a double coat: think Siberian husky, border collie, Pomeranian or Labrador retriever. To tame the onslaught of falling fur, start a regular schedule of brushing and combing to remove dead hair -- and in the process keep it from landing on your clothing and furniture. Once the shed is in full swing, warm baths can help loosen dead hair for removal. -- Dr. Marty Becker, Kim Campbell Thornton and Mikkel Becker
ABOUT PET CONNECTION
Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet care experts. Veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker is founder of the Fear Free organization, co-founder of VetScoop.com and author of many best-selling pet care books. Kim Campbell Thornton is an award-winning journalist and author who has been writing about animals since 1985. Mikkel Becker is a behavior consultant and lead animal trainer for Fear Free Pets. Dr. Becker can be found at Facebook.com/DrMartyBecker or on Twitter at DrMartyBecker. Kim Campbell Thornton is at Facebook.com/Kim.CampbellThornton and on Twitter at kkcthornton. Mikkel Becker is at Facebook.com/MikkelBecker and on Twitter at MikkelBecker.