While thousands of artists, first and last, have undertaken to paint cats, there are but few who have been able to do them justice. Artists who have possessed the technical skill requisite to such delicate work have rarely been willing to give to what they have regarded as unimportant subjects the necessary study; and those who have been willing to study cats seriously have possessed but seldom the skill requisite to paint them well.
Thomas Janvier, whose judgment on such matters is unquestioned, declares that not a dozen have succeeded in painting thoroughly good cat portraits, portraits so true to nature as to satisfy—if they could express their feelings in the premises—the cat subjects and their cat friends. Only four painters, he says, ever painted cats habitually and always well.
Two members of this small but highly distinguished company flourished about a century ago in widely separated parts of the world, and without either of them knowing that the other existed.
One was a Japanese artist, named Ho-Kou-Say, whose method of painting, of course, was quite unlike that to which we are accustomed in this western part of the world, but who had a wonderful faculty for making his queer little cat figures seem intensely alive.
The other was a Swiss artist, named Gottfried Mind, whose cat pictures are so perfect in their way that he came to be honorably known as "the Cat Raphael."
The other two members of the cat quartet are the French artist, Monsieur Louis Eugene Lambert, whose pictures are almost as well known in this country as they are in France; and the Dutch artist, Madame Henriette Ronner, whose delightful cat pictures are known even better, as she catches the softer and sweeter graces of the cat more truly than Lambert.
A thoroughly good picture of a cat is hard to paint, from a technical standpoint, because the artist must represent not only the soft surface of fur, but the underlying hard lines of muscle: and his studies must be made under conditions of cat perversity which are at times quite enough to drive him wild. If he is to represent the cat in repose, he must wait for her to take that position of her own accord; and then, just as his sketch is well under way, she is liable to rise, stretch herself, and walk off. If his picture is to represent action, he must wait for the cat to do what he wants her to do, and that many times before he can be quite sure that his drawing is correct. With these severe limitations upon cat painting, it is not surprising that very few good pictures of cats have been painted.
Gottfried Mind has left innumerable pen sketches to prove his intimate knowledge of the beauty and charm of the cat. He was born at Berne in 1768. He had a special taste for drawing animals even when very young, bears and cats being his favorite subjects. As he grew older he obtained a wonderful proficiency, and his cat pictures appeared with every variety of expression. Their silky coats, their graceful attitudes, their firm shape beneath the undulating fur, were treated so as to make Mind's cats seem alive.
It was Madame Lebrun who named him the "Raphael of Cats," and many a royal personage bought his pictures. He, like most cat painters, kept his cats constantly with him, knowing that only by persistent and never tiring study could he ever hope to master their infinite variety. His favorite mother cat kept closely at his side when he worked, or perhaps in his lap; while her kittens ran over him as fearlessly as they played with their mother's tail. When a terrible epidemic broke out among the cats of Berne in 1809, he hid his Minette safely from the police, but he never quite recovered from the horror of the massacre of the eight hundred that had to be sacrificed for the general safety of the people. He died in 1814, and in poverty, although a few years afterward his pictures brought extravagant prices.
Burbank, the English painter, has done some good things in cat pictures. The expression of the face and the peculiar light in the cat's eye made up the realism of Burbank's pictures, which were reproductions of sleek and handsome drawing-room pets, whose shining coats he brings out with remarkable precision.
The ill-fated Swiss artist Cornelius Wisscher's marvellous tom-cat has become typical.
Delacroix, the painter of tigers, was a man of highly nervous temperament, but his cat sketches bring out too strongly the tigerish element to be altogether successful.
Tom Brown Jr.; Titus; Sweetheart; Children of Tom Brown and Persia:
Louis Eugene Lambert was a pupil of Delacroix. He was born in Paris, September 25, 1825, and the chief event of his youth was, perhaps, the great friendship which existed between him and Maurice Sands. Entomology was a fad with him for a time, but he finally took up his serious life-work in 1854, when he began illustrating for the Journal of Agriculture. In connection with his work, he began to study animals carefully, making dogs his specialty. In 1862 he illustrated an edition of La Fontaine, and in 1865 he obtained his first medal for a painting of dogs. In 1866 his painting of cats, "L'Horloge qui avance," won another medal, and brought his first fame as a cat painter. In 1874 he was made a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor. His "Envoi" in 1874, "Les Chats du Cardinal," and "Grandeur Decline" brought more medals. Although he has painted hosts of excellent dog pictures, cats are his favorites, on account, as he says, of "les formes fines et gracieux; mouvements, souple et subtil."
In the Luxembourg Gallery, Mr. Lambert's "Family of Cats" is considered one of the finest cat pictures in the world. In this painting the mother sits upon a table watching the antics of her four frivolous kittens. There is a wonderful smoothness of touch and refinement of treatment that have never yet been excelled. "After the Banquet" is another excellent example of the same smoothness of execution, with fulness of action instead of repose. And yet there is an undeniable lack of the softer attributes which should be evident in the faces of the group.
It is here that Madame Ronner excels all other cat painters, living or dead. She not only infuses a wonderful degree of life into her little figures, but reproduces the shades of expression, shifting and variable as the sands of the sea, as no other artist of the brush has done. Asleep or awake, her cats look exactly to the "felinarian" like cats with whom he or she is familiar. Curiosity, drowsiness, indifference, alertness, love, hate, anxiety, temper, innocence, cunning, fear, confidence, mischief, earnestness, dignity, helplessness,—they are all in Madame Ronner's cats' faces, just as we see them in our own cats.
Madame Ronner is the daughter of Josephus Augustus Knip, a landscape painter of some celebrity sixty years ago, and from her father she received her first art education. She is now over seventy years old, and for nearly fifty years has made her home in Brussels. There, she and her happy cats, a big black Newfoundland dog named Priam, with a pert cockatoo named Coco, dwell together in a roomy house in its own grounds, back a little from the Charleroi Road. Madame Ronner has a good son to care for her, and she loves the animals, who are both her servants and her friends. Every day she spends three good hours of the morning in her studio, painting her delightful cat pictures with the energy of a young artist and the expert precision which we know so well. She was sixteen when she succeeded in painting a picture which was accepted and sold at a public exhibition at Dusseldorf. This was a study of a cat seated in a window and examining with great curiosity a bumblebee; while it would not compare with her later work, there must have been good quality in it, or it would not have got into a Dusseldorf picture exhibition at all. At any rate, it was the beginning of her successful career as an artist. From that time she managed to support herself and her father by painting pictures of animals. For many years, however, she confined herself to painting dogs. Her most famous picture, "The Friend of Man," belongs to this period—a pathetic group composed of a sorrowing old sand-seller looking down upon a dying dog still harnessed to the little sand-wagon, with the two other dogs standing by with wistful looks of sympathy. When this picture was exhibited, in 1860, Madame Ronner's fame was established permanently.
But it so happened that in the same year a friendly kitten came to live in her home, wandering in through the open doorway from no one knew where, and deciding, after sniffing about the place in cat fashion, to remain there for the remainder of its days. And it also happened that Madame Ronner was lured by this small stranger, who so coolly quartered himself upon her, to change the whole current of her artistic life, and to paint cats instead of dogs. Of course, this change could not be made in a moment; but after that the pictures which she painted to please herself were cat pictures, and as these were exhibited and her reputation as a cat painter became established, cat orders took the place of dog orders more and more, until at last her time was given wholly to cat painting. Her success in painting cat action has been due as much to her tireless patience as to her skill; a patience that gave her strength to spend hours upon hours in carefully watching the quick movements of the lithe little creatures, and in correcting again and again her rapidly made sketches.
Every cat-lover knows that a cat cannot be induced, either by reason or by affection, to act in accordance with any wishes save its own. Also that cats find malicious amusement in doing what they know they are not wanted to do, and that with an affectation of innocence that materially aggravates their deliberate offence.
But Madame Ronner, through her long experience, has evolved a way to get them to pose as models. Her plan is the simple one of keeping her models prisoners in a glass box, enclosed in a wire cage, while she is painting them. Inside the prison she cannot always command their actions, but her knowledge of cat character enables her to a certain extent to persuade them to take the pose which she requires. By placing a comfortable cushion in the cage she can tempt her model to lie down; some object of great interest, like a live mouse, for instance, exhibited just outside the cage is sure to create the eager look that she has shown so well on cat faces; and to induce her kittens to indulge in the leaps and bounds which she has succeeded so wonderfully in transferring to canvas, she keeps hanging from the top of the cage a most seductive "bob."
Madame Ronner's favorite models are "Jem" and "Monmouth," cats of rare sweetness of temper, whose conduct in all relations of life is above reproach. The name of "Monmouth," as many will recall, was made famous by the hero of Monsieur La Bedolierre's classic, "Mother Michel and her Cat,"  and therefore has clustering about it traditions so glorious that its wearers in modern times must be upheld always by lofty hopes and high resolves. Doubtless Monmouth Ronner feels the responsibility entailed upon him by his name.
In the European galleries are several noted paintings in which the cat appears more or less unsuccessfully. Breughel and Teniers made their grotesque "Cat Concerts" famous, but one can scarcely see why, since the drawing is poor and there is no real insight into cat character evident. The sleeping cat, in Breughel's "Paradise Lost" in the Louvre, is better, being well drawn, but so small as to leave no chance for expression. Lebrun's "Sleep of the Infant Jesus," in the Louvre, has a slumbering cat under the stove, and in Barocci's "La Madonna del Gatto" the cat is the centre of interest. Holman Hunt's "The Awakening Conscience" and Murillo's Holy Family "del Pajarito" give the cat as a type of cruelty, but have failed egregiously in accuracy of form or expression. Paul Veronese's cat in "The Marriage at Cana" is fearfully and wonderfully made, and even Rembrandt failed when he tried to introduce a cat into his pictures.
Rosa Bonheur has been wise enough not to attempt cat pictures, knowing that special study, for which she had not the time or the inclination, is necessary to fit an artist to excel with the feline character. Landseer, too, after trying twice, once in 1819 with "The Cat Disturbed" and once in 1824 with "The Cat's Paw," gave up all attempts at dealing with Grimalkin. Indeed, most artists who have attempted it, have found that to be a wholly successful cat artist such whole-hearted devotion to the subject as Madame Ronner's is the invariable price of distinction.
Of late, however, more artists are found who are willing to pay this price, who are giving time and study not only to the subtle shadings of the delicate fur, but to the varying facial expression and sinuous movements of the cat. Margaret Stocks, of Munich, for example, is rapidly coming to the front as a cat painter, and some predict for her (she is still a young woman) a future equal to Madame Ronner's. Gambier Bolton's "Day Dreams" shows admirably the quality and "tumbled-ness" of an Angora kitten's fur, while the expression and drawing are equally good. Miss Cecilia Beaux's "Brighton Cats" is famous, and every student of cats recognizes its truthfulness at once.
Angora and Persian kittens find another loving and faithful student in J. Adam, whose paintings have been photographed and reproduced in this country times without number. "Puss in Boots" is another foreign picture which has been photographed and sold extensively in this country. "Little Milksop" by the same artist, Mr. Frank Paton, gives fairly faithful drawing and expression of two kittens who have broken a milk pitcher and are eagerly lapping up the contents.
In the Munich Gallery there is a painting by Claus Meyer, "Bose Zungen," which has become quite noted. His three old cats and three young cats show three gossiping old crones by the side of whom are three small and awkward kittens.
Of course, there are no artists whose painting of the cat is to be compared with Madame Ronner's. Mr. J.L. Dolph, of New York City, has painted hundreds of cat pieces which have found a ready sale, and Mr. Sid L. Brackett, of Boston, is doing very creditable work. A successful cat painter of the younger school is Mr. N.N. Bickford, of New York, whose "Peek-a-Boo" hangs in a Chicago gallery side by side with cats of Madame Ronner and Monsieur Lambert. "Miss Kitty's Birthday" shows that he has genuine understanding of cat character, and is mastering the subtleties of long white fur.
Mr. Bickford is a pupil of Jules Lefèbvre Boulanger and Miralles. It was by chance that he became a painter of cats. Mademoiselle Marie Engle, the prima-donna, owned a beautiful white Angora cat which she prized very highly, and as her engagements abroad compelled her to part with the cat for a short time, she left Mizzi with the artist until her return. One day Mr. Bickford thought he would try painting the white, silken fur of Mizzi: the result not only surprised him but also his artist friends, who said, "Lambert himself could not have done better."
Upon Miss Engle's return, seeing what an inspiration her cat had been, she gave her to Mr. Bickford, and it is needless to add that he has become deeply attached to his beautiful model. Mizzi is a pure white Angora, with beautiful blue eyes, and silky fur. She won first prize at the National Cat Show of 1895, but no longer attends cat shows, on account of her engagements as professional model.
Ben Austrian, who has made a success in painting other animals, has done a cat picture of considerable merit. The subject was Tix, a beautiful tiger-gray, belonging to Mr. Mahlon W. Newton, of Philadelphia. The cat is noted, not only in Philadelphia, but among travelling men, as he resides at a hotel, and is quite a prominent member of the office force. He weighs fifteen pounds and is of a very affectionate nature, following his master to the park and about the establishment like a dog. During the day he lives in the office, lying on the counter or the key-rack, but at night he retires with his master at eleven or twelve o'clock, sleeping in his own basket in the bathroom, and waking his master promptly at seven every morning. Tix's picture hangs in the office of his hotel, and is becoming as famous as the cat.
Elizabeth Bonsall is a young American artist who has exhibited some good cat pictures, and whose work promises to make her famous some day, if she does not "weary in well-doing"; and Mr. Jean Paul Selinger's "Kittens" are quite well known.
The good cat illustrator is even more rare than the cat painters. Thousands of readers recall those wonderfully lifelike cats and kittens which were a feature of the St. Nicholas a few years ago, accompanied by "nonsense rhymes" or "jingles." They were the work of Joseph G. Francis, of Brookline, Mass., and brought him no little fame. He was, and is still, a broker on State Street, Boston, and in his busy life these inimitable cat sketches were but an incident. Mr. Francis is a devoted admirer of all cats, and had for many years loved and studied one cat in particular. It was by accident that he discovered his own possibilities in the line of cat drawing, as he began making little pen-and-ink sketches for his own amusement and then for that of his friends. The latter persuaded him to send some of these drawings to the St. Nicholas and the Wide-Awake magazines, and, rather to his surprise, they were promptly accepted, and the "Francis cats" became famous. Mr. Francis does but little artistic work, nowadays, more important business keeping him well occupied; besides, he says, he "is not in the mood for it."
Who does not know Louis Wain's cats?—that prince of English illustrators. Mr. Wain's home, when not in London, is at Bendigo Lodge, Westgate, Kent. He began his artistic career at nineteen, after a training in the best London schools. He was not a hard worker over his books, but his fondness for nature led him to an artist's career. American Indian stories were his delight, and accounts of the wandering outdoor life of our aborigines were instrumental in developing his powers of observation regarding the details of nature. Always fond of dumb animals, he began life by making sketches for sporting papers at agricultural shows all over England. It was his own cat "Peter" who first suggested to Louis Wain the fanciful cat creations which have made his name famous. Watching Peter's antics one evening, he was tempted to do a small study of kittens, which was promptly accepted by a magazine editor in London. Then he trained Peter to become a model and the starting-point of his success. Peter has done more to wipe out of England the contempt in which the cat was formerly held there, than any other feline in the world. He has done his race a service in raising their status from neglected, forlorn creatures on the one hand, or the pampered, overfed object of old maids' affections on the other, to a dignified place in the English house.
The double-page picture of the "Cat's Christmas Dance" in the London Illustrated News of December 6, 1890, contains a hundred and fifty cats, with as many varying facial expressions and attitudes. It occupied eleven working days of Mr. Wain's time, but it caught the public fancy and made a tremendous hit all over the world. Louis Wain's cats immediately became famous, and he has had more orders than he can fill ever since. He works eight hours a day, and then lays aside his brush to study physical science, or write a humorous story. He has written and illustrated a comic book, and spent a great deal of time over a more serious one.
Among the best known of his cat pictures, after the "Christmas Party," is his "Cats' Rights Meeting," which not even the most ardent suffragist can study without laughter. From a desk an ardent tabby is expounding, loud and long, on the rights of her kind. In front of her is a double row of felines, sitting with folded arms, and listening with absorbed attention. The expressions of these cats' faces, some ardent, some indignant, some placid, but all interested, form a ridiculous contrast to a row of "Toms" in the rear, who evidently disagree with the lecturer, and are prepared to hiss at her more "advanced" ideas. "Returning Thanks" is nearly as amusing, with its thirteen cats seated at table over their wine, while one offers thanks, and the remainder wear varying expressions of devotion, indifference, or irreverence. "Bringing Home the Yule Log" gives twenty-one cats, and as many individual expressions of joy or discomfort; and the "Snowball Match" shows a scene almost as hilarious as the "Christmas Dance."
Mr. Wain believes there is a great future for black and white work if a man is careful to keep abreast of the times. "A man should first of all create his public and draw upon his own fund of originality to sustain it," he says, "taking care not to pander to the degenerate tendencies which would prevent his work from elevating the finer instincts of the people." Says a recent visitor to the Wain household: "I wonder if Peter realizes that he has done more good than most human beings, who are endowed not only with sense but with brains? if in the firelight, he sees the faces of many a suffering child whose hours of pain have been shortened by the recital of his tricks, and the pictures of himself arrayed in white cravat, or gayly disporting himself on a 'see-saw'? I feel inclined to wake him up, and whisper how, one cold winter's night, I met a party of five little children, hatless and bootless, hurrying along an East-end slum, and saying encouragingly to the youngest, who was crying with cold and hunger, 'Come along: we'll get there soon.' I followed them down the lighted street till they paused in front of a barber's shop, and I heard their voices change to a shout of merriment: for in the window was a crumpled Christmas supplement, and Peter, in a frolicsome mood, was represented entertaining at a large cats' tea-party. Hunger, and cold, and misery were all dispelled. Who would not be a cat of Louis Wain's, capable of creating ten minutes' sunshine in a childish heart?"
Mr. Wain announces a discovery in relation to cats which corroborates a theory of my own, adopted from long observation and experience.
"I have found," he says, "as a result of many years of inquiry and study, that people who keep cats and are in the habit of petting them, do not suffer from those petty ailments which all flesh is heir to. Rheumatism and nervous complaints are uncommon with them, and Pussy's lovers are of the sweetest temperament. I have often felt the benefit, after a long spell of mental effort, of having my cats sitting across my shoulders, or of half an hour's chat with Peter."
This is a frequent experience of my own. Nothing is more restful and soothing after a busy day than sitting with my hands buried in the soft sides of one of my cats.
"Do you know," said one of my neighbors, recently, "when I am troubled with insomnia, lately, I get up and get Bingo from his bed, and take him to mine. I can go to sleep with my hands on him."
There is a powerful magnetic influence which emanates from a sleepy or even a quiet cat, that many an invalid has experienced without realizing it. If physicians were to investigate this feature of the cat's electrical and magnetic influence, in place of anatomical research after death, or the horrible practice of vivisection, they might be doing a real service to humanity.
Mr. Wain's success as an illustrator brought him great prominence in the National Cat Club of England, and he has been for a number of years its president, doing much to raise the condition and quality of cats and the status of the club. He has a number of beautiful and high-bred cats at Bendigo Lodge.
With regard to the painting of cats Champfleury said, "The lines are so delicate, the eyes are distinguished by such remarkable qualities, the movements are due to such sudden impulses, that to succeed in the portrayal of such a subject, one must be feline one's self." And Mr. Spielman gives the following advice to those who would paint cats:—
"You must love them, as Mahomet and Chesterfield loved them: be as fond of their company as Wolsley and Richelieu, Mazarin and Colbert, who retained them even during their most impressive audiences: as Petrarch, and Dr. Johnson, and Canon Liddon, and Ludovic Halévy, who wrote with them at their elbow: and Tasso and Gray, who celebrated them in verse: as sympathetic as Carlyle, whom Mrs. Allingham painted in the company of his beloved 'Tib' in the garden at Chelsea, or as Whittington, the hero of our milk-and-water days: think of El Daher Beybars, who fed all feline comers, or 'La Belle Stewart,' Duchess of Richmond, who, in the words of the poet, 'endowed a college' for her little friends: you must be as approbative of their character, their amenableness to education, their inconstancy, not to say indifference and their general lack of principle, as Madame de Custine: and as appreciative of their daintiness and grace as Alfred de Musset. Then, and not till then, can you consider yourself sentimentally equipped for studying the art of cat painting." Translated into English by Thomas Bailey Aldrich.