The Truth About Cats and Artists

Wain's The Bachelor Party painting

Every “Caturday,” the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art Facebook page highlights a cat in an archival object in their collections. The array of their examples is vast, showcasing how artists have found inspiration and solace in their feline companions over the course of history. What is it about our feline friends that has captured the fascination of humans? This obsession with adoring the cat is still present in a myriad of ways: Facebook and the meme being two prime examples, not to mention the thousands of hours of cat videos on YouTube. Some have even argued that cats themselves are art: Leonardo Da Vinci proposedly said that “the smallest feline is a masterpiece.” Yet the history of the cat and how they have become immortalised in art is a fairly complex progression. Like many animals there is a history of strong symbolic association with the cat that has moved from the worship of cat-headed gods to the killing of cats as witches’ familiars. They are recorded in many forms in different early cultures, used for social commentary, and made themselves at home in the artist’s studio. Much of the fascination of artists can be aligned in two forms: the historical and symbolic role of the cat, and the domesticated role of the cat.

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