Leonardo da Vinci believed that the cat could hardly be improved on: even the smallest specimen, he said, was a “masterpiece.” That might account for the cat’s prevalence in art, but its function is never merely decorative. As art historian Stefano Zuffi makes clear in The Cat in Art, recently published by Harry N. Abrams, the cat is a scene-stealer who shows that anarchy and order are separated by only a whisker.
Cats appeared in ancient Egyptian frescoes as early as 2000 B.C. As the born hunters were domesticated, depictions of cats began to emphasize their human qualities, and the Egyptian goddess Bastet took the iconographic form of a woman with a cat’s head. The Romans celebrated the animal’s hunting skills, as in the famous Pompeian Casa del Fauno mosaic, which shows a wild cat ensnaring a partridge (ca. 2 B.C.).
During the Middle Ages, a black cat became a symbol of heresy and paganism, and some depictions of the Last Supper show a cat curled at the feet of Judas. But in one illuminated manuscript from Harleian Bestiary (ca. 13th century), Zuffi notes, three elegantly elongated cats proffer a dead mouse like “avenging angels who have defeated evil”—at least the earthly kind.
The Renaissance dispelled medieval superstitions and allied cats with scholars. According to the theory of the four humors, the cat was “associated with the phlegmatic type, unpredictable and saturnine, and artists readily identified with it,” writes Zuffi.
As an icon of both laziness and domestic bliss, the cat is a common fixture in 17th-century Dutch depictions of interiors, dozing at the hearth or lurking under a table. In paintings by Boucher and Chardin, a thieving cat is the mischievous exception in an otherwise still tableau of fish or fowl.
“In the 18th century, the image of the cat acquired a new set of attributes: sensuality, malice, and seduction,” Zuffi writes. Formerly banished to the kitchen or the fringes of a scene, the cat became a prowler of Rococo boudoirs, scooped up against the bosoms of society ladies. Never easily confined, however, the cat was also a companion of the poor—one of the figures in Giacomo Ceruti’s Two Beggars (1730–34) calms a stray—as well as a symbol of freedom during the French Revolution.
Impressionists including Renoir and Cassatt painted kittens clutched by winsome children, while Manet punctuated his famous statement of modernity with a black cat in Olympia (1863). During the 20th century, the feline form lent itself equally well to the sinuous lines of Art Nouveau and the angularity of Cubism. Picasso, a confirmed dog lover, nonetheless admired the untamed quality of feral cats.
Fittingly, Zuffi’s final chapter examines the persistence of demonic feline representations, from those in Goya’s Los Caprichos (1799) to Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire Cat. For while cats may be domestic animals, they are never fully domesticated.