Long before the Internet made their everyday quirks and delights possible to go viral, artists drew—and drew inspiration from—cats of all types. Cats, first depicted by Egyptian artisans around 3100 B.C., are the subject of a new survey by the Smithsonian's Archives of American Art.
“Before Internet Cats: Feline Finds from the Archives of American Art,” on view in the Lawrence A. Fishman Gallery at the Smithsonian’s Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture, includes works dating to 1870 and selected from its 6,000 collections of American artists.
From those estimated 20 million objects, archivists found plenty of evidence of cats as more than elegant studio companions, but inspirations as well.
“The goal of the exhibition is based on the idea that the Internet is this vast, endless source of information that has this unofficial mascot—the kitty cat,” says Mary Savig, the Archives' curator of manuscripts, who helped compile the show.
“Everywhere you go on the internet you’ll find cat memes and cat videos, and we’re trying to say the Archives is similar,” she says. “It’s this network of interconnected information where you can discover anything you want to know about American art history, and also happens to be populated by all these cats.”
The show includes a young Jasper Johns interacting with a cat in his studio. Louise Nevelson is seen dressed in white, holding a black cat in front of one of her all-black wall sculptures in a photograph by Geoffrey Clements.
Hans Hoffman is represented not by one of his abstract expressionist paintings, but by a photograph of his cat Tuffy.
(The show purposely ends about the time the Internet starts up ).
The San Francisco artist Jay DeFeo was one of several artists who photographed a cat in the studio. Her cat Pooh was perched atop a ladder in one photo on display. She corresponded with others about cats as well. The Beat writer and photographer Mark Green sent DeFeo an image of his cat intently watching television in 1974, and wrote on the back, “People are my serious photography; cats are my relaxation.”
“You actually wouldn’t believe how many photographs show up with cats in the artists’ studios,” Savig says.
But, she says, “Studios can really be a reflective places for artists, where they might just work on projects for days at a time. So it can be very solitary and certainly not suited for a pet like a dog that you have to give attention to and let out. Whereas cats tend to make great studio companions—and sympathetic critics. And occasionally some really make great muses because there are some artists who use their cat in their studio and paint that.”
Emily Barto is seen using a cat as model for her painting Animal Tales at New York City's Fordham Hospital in 1937, part of the Federal Art Project of the W.P.A.
“You can see she used a live cat for a mural she was working on that was depicting the nursery rhyme ‘There Was a Crooked Man,’” Savig says. “So we have this incredibly docile cat who is posing.”
And cats were the subject of a lot of correspondence, which makes sense, she adds. “I liken it to people texting or emailing memes to each other today. Really it’s no different. People are just sharing really silly photographs and clippings of cats.”
Lenore Tawney cut out magazine pictures of cats to put on the front of distinctive postcards. The French abstract painter Georges Mathieu sent an oversized letter with a kitten collage to the artist Hedda Sterne, perhaps to cheer her up the way a well-chosen meme today would.
Cats were inspirational such that the sculptor John Bradley Storrs wrote a story about his cat saving the day on the farm. The so-called “Mama of Dada” Beatrice Wood is also represented by a manuscripts about her cat.
When she wasn’t writing biographies of American artists, historian Elizabeth McCausland wrote a book of conversations with her cat, March Lion. The illustrator of that book, Charles Edward Buckley is represented by a lavishly illustrated birthday card for the animal, depicting March Lion posing for the artists George Inness and Alfred H. Maurer, both of whom McCausland had written monographs about.
It was the first birthday for the cat, so named after the last day of March, out like a lion in 1959. But it was no small event, Savig said; it was held at Washington’s old Corcoran Gallery. March Lion is also the subject of an unpublished manuscript of an imagined conversation with McCausland.
“It was never published,” Savig says, “though there’s a lot of correspondence with publishers, where she says things like, ‘Why would you talk to a human when you can talk to a cat?’”
Cats are included in the papers of some artists simply because they were part of their lives. The American social realist painter Moses Soyer would write to his young son David in the voice of their cat Tiger, who was depicted in a lavishly-illustrated letter.
There is also a 1958 application on display for a Siamese cat named Sage to be registered by the Cat Fancier’s Association from the French surrealist painter Yves Tanguy and his wife the painter Kay Sage.
“One of the trends I noticed is that a lot of artists seemed to prefer Siamese cats,” Savig says. “They must have appealed to people with aesthetic sensibilities.”
An address book from the Chicago-based jazz painter Gertrude Abercrombe includes a list of more than a dozen “Cats I’ve had (big main ones)” and their fates. By that, she means big Maine Coon cats, one of the biggest breeds. Her list includes Jimmy (“died in Aledo”), Davey (“given to cleaning lady”), Monk (“went to Elgin nut house”), Fitzgerald (“went to Western Suburbs”) and Folly (“killed by dog?”).
Cats also turn up in sketches and doodles. It’s an 1870 doodle in a childhood book of animal sketches by the Boston artist Walter Gay that is the oldest work in the show.
“Sketchbooks and drawings give you a lot of insight into the creative process,” Savig says. “Some are mindless doodling, some of them are more focused studies because they’re trying to experiment with things like light and shade and shadow. Other times, it can be source material for future work, allowing us to better understand the artistic process, and how they develop their signature styles.”
Besides, as models, she adds, “cats sleep for hours at a time.”
“Before Internet Cats: Feline Finds from the Archives of American Art” continues through October 29, 2017, at the Lawrence A. Fishman Gallery at the Smithsonian’s Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture, Washington, D.C.