Cats Had Clout Long Before the Internet

For artists, cats prove to be more than elegant studio companions, but inspirations as well, says a new exhibition

All Kinds of Cats by painter, printmaker and art instructor Dorr Bothwell, exhibition announcement, 1977. Dorr Bothwell papers, Archives of American Art
An unidentified man with a kitten lounges with Joan McVitty, Ed Barnes, Alexander Calder, Constance Breuer, and Mary Barnes at a gathering at the New Canaan House I, designed by Marcel Breauer, ca. 1947. Marcel Breuer papers, Archives of American Art
A cat called Stubbs by the New York sculptor and educator Anne Arnold snuggles with one of the artist's bunnies in Maine, ca. 1970. Photograph by Anne Arnold, Anne Arnold papers, Archives of American Art
San Francisco Bay area painter Jay DeFeo photographed her cat, Pooh, in her studio, between 1960 and 1965. Photograph by Jay DeFeo. Jay DeFeo papers, Archives of American Art
Artist Emily Barto used a cat as a 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. Photograph by Andrew Herman. Federal Art Project, Photographic Division collection, Archives of American Art
Illustrator Charles E. Buckley created this lavish birthday card of the cat March Lion, posing for artists George Inness and Alfred H. Maurer, March 24, 1950. Elizabeth McCausland papers, Archives of American Art
Miné Okubo painting of a cat, 1972. Roy Leeper and Gaylord Hall collection of Miné Okubo papers, Archives of American Art
Artist Judith Linhares of Brooklyn, New York, playing with a cat in her studio, 2001. Judith Linhares papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution
An undated drawing by artist, writer, poet and illustrator Charles Green Shaw. Charles Green Shaw papers, Archives of American Art
A ca. 1960 Christmas card sent to artist Joseph Cornell from Carolee Schneemann features a photo of her cat Kitch. Joseph Cornell papers, Archives of American Art
Fiber artist Lenore Tawney (1907–2007) crafted a postcard collage and sent it to photographer and artist Maryette Charlton, March 18, 1980. Maryette Charlton papers, Archives of American Art
A sketchbook of cats, ca. 1900 by painter Esther Baldwin Williams. Esther Baldwin Williams and Esther Williams papers, Archives of American Art
Frank Stella in his studio, 1975. Photograph by Mike Tighe. Leo Castelli Gallery records, Archives of American Art
In a letter to art collector Elizabeth Stein, California ceramicist Beatrice Wood sketched a self-portrait cradling her cat in her arms, 1991. Beatrice Wood letters to Elizabeth Stein, Archives of American Art
Michigan artist Edna Reindel with her cat, ca. 1940. Photograph by Iris Woolcock, Edna Reindel papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution

Nine lives before Grumpy Cat; way before Keyboard Cat played her first note, felines were revered by visual artists—even without the means to post them.

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

Here’s Frank Stella in a 1975 photograph relaxing in his Greenwich Village studio with a cat on his lap. And Alexander Calder among a group of friends—and a kitten—in a home in rural Connecticut.

Hans Hoffman is represented not by one of his abstract expressionist paintings, but by a photograph of his cat Tuffy. 

One of the more recent works included is a 2001 image of the painter Judith Linhares seated with her cat and used in an exhibition catalog at New York’s Edward Thorp Gallery

(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.”

Cats were the subject of whole gallery shows by sculptor Anne Arnold and painter Dorr Bothwell.

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.

Carol Schneemann included her cat in her illustrated greeting card to the artist Joseph Cornell, circa 1960.

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.

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