Women and Cats in Art

There is a strong link between women, girls and cats. In fiction, for instance, women are frequently described as cats (and also as birds).

Then there’s the witch link between women and cats, who are thought to be witches’ familiars. During the witch craze, a small proportion of men were also tried for witchcraft, but the modern witch archetype is an old woman who sometimes transmogrifies into a beautiful young woman in order to trick men or to test them.

Then there’s the modern dismissive archetype of the ‘crazy cat lady’, for which there is no male counterpart.

Below are some artworks celebrating the relationship between women, girls and their cats.

Ida Rentoul Outhwaite (1888-1960)
Ida Rentoul Outhwaite (1888-1960)
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The Wind In The Willows by Kenneth Grahame

Wind in the Willows cover David Petersen

The Wind In The Willows is an Edwardian (1908) novel by Scottish born British writer Kenneth Grahame. This book is an example of a story from the First Golden Age of Children’s Literature. Idyllic settings were popular at the time. Idylls remained popular up to and including A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh books (written 1924-1928).

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Fish Bowls In Art

George Dunlop Leslie - The Goldfish Seller

The fishbowl is a common symbol of surveillance, as is a glass house. For house cats, the fish bowl is a miniature version of the pond or lake — domestic version.

Blanchie and the Goldfish from the book Clever Cats a Chimney Corner Series unknown author and illustrator, published by Peter G. Thomson, Cincinatti, Ohio, 1885
Blanchie and the Goldfish from the book Clever Cats a Chimney Corner Series unknown author and illustrator, published by Peter G. Thomson, Cincinatti, Ohio, 1885
by Gilbert Wilkinson cat goldfish
by Gilbert Wilkinson
Anne Anderson and Alan Wright husband and wife illustrators, from The Cuddly Kitty and the Busy Bunny by Clara G Dennis 1927 goldfish
Anne Anderson and Alan Wright husband and wife illustrators, from The Cuddly Kitty and the Busy Bunny by Clara G Dennis 1927
Dutch poster for Philips Tv, 1951 fish
Dutch poster for Philips TV, 1951
Shukan Shincho cover by Rokuro Taniuchi 1979
Shukan Shincho cover by Rokuro Taniuchi 1979
Illustration by Carlo Bisi, 1932
Illustration by Carlo Bisi, 1932
French fashion illustrations c.1920s George Barbier
French fashion illustrations c.1920s George Barbier
Erte 1977 fishbowl
Erte 1977 fishbowl
Cat and Bowl of Goldfish, 1933 by Ohara Koson (Shoson) (1877 - 1945)
Cat and Bowl of Goldfish, 1933 by Ohara Koson (Shoson) (1877 – 1945)
Marguerite Davis, 1936 goldfish
Marguerite Davis, 1936
Le Monde A Envers, (Pomme d’Api), 1942 goldfish
Cat and Goldfish from the series One Hundred Tales. Utagawa Kuniyoshi. 1839
Cat and Goldfish from the series One Hundred Tales. Utagawa Kuniyoshi. 1839
From ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’ 1966 Written by Elizabeth Rose Illustrated by Gerald Rose ( b. 1935) fish bowl
From ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’ 1966 Written by Elizabeth Rose Illustrated by Gerald Rose ( b. 1935) fish bowl

Header painting: George Dunlop Leslie – The Goldfish Seller

Symbolism of Birds

VERNEUIL, Maurice Pillard (1869-1942). L'Animal dans la décoration. Paris- Librairie centrale des Beaux-arts, [1897] Birds Snails

Birds are much older than we are — living dinosaurs. Across cultures, birds function as smart collaborators with humans. We now know how smart (some) birds really are, but we have long had a sense of their canniness. The smartest bird in the world is currently thought to be the New Zealand Kea, which isn’t so great if you live in New Zealand and the kea is chewing the bits of rubber off your car.

New Zealand’s kakapo is also a bit of a… character.

BIRDS AND THE ANCIENT GREEKS

Birds are frequently utilised in tales of transmogrification. Wings are frequently stuck onto chimerae. This surely has something to do with humans’ long-held wish-fulfilment fantasy of being able to fly.

Take the Ancient Greek mythological siren.

Bird symbolism in the Greek imagination was common. Reverse-engineering the meaning of all these story-birds isn’t easy. For instance, we’ll never know for sure why Sirens took the form of a hybrid bird-woman, but we do know that in ancient mythology birds represented a number of things:

  • oracles
  • enchantresses
  • messengers of deities
  • mediators (between the human world and the supernatural realm)

Over the centuries, however, the Siren transformed. In the Middle Ages, the spread of Christianity throughout Europe saw the Siren morph from a bird-woman into a fish-bodied being, who personified the dangers of both the sea and female sexuality. The seventh-century medieval bestiary Liber monstruorum diversis generibus, or the “Book of Monsters,” is one of the earliest examples of this transition, describing Sirens as sea-girls who “are like human beings from the head to the navel, with the body of a maiden, but have scaly fish tails, with which they always lurk in the sea.” Illustrations from the period clearly reveal the difference; the Sirens now have voluptuous bodies, perform erotic moves, and exhibit brazen tactics of seduction, such as staring longingly into mirrors and combing their hair. These Sirens no longer symbolized the spirit, but rather, the pleasures of the flesh.

Vice
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Owl At Home by Arnold Lobel

Owl At Home is a 1975 picture book written and illustrated by Arnold Lobel. The book comprises five very short early reader stories about a kind, anxious and lonely owl. These owl stories, along with the frog and toad stories come from the second phase of Lobel’s creative career, in which he tapped into his own emotions and acknowledged he was writing “adult stories, slightly disguised as children’s stories”.

Owl lives by himself in a regular Western-style dream house (with the upstairs, the hearth, and everything you’d expect to see in a picture book dream house). Although published in the 1970s, there’s nothing 70s about this dream house — there are 1800s/early 1900s details, such as the candle beside the bed. (There doesn’t seem to be electricity.) Picture books set in this era feel atemporal to a modern audience. I’m not sure if this house is in fact inside a tree, because we don’t get an establishing shot.

Owl at Home (1975) black and white
Owl at Home (1975) black and white
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Amos and Boris by William Steig

Some picture books have an Aesop fable at their base. Amos and Boris is one such picture book, written and illustrated by William Steig (1971). Amos and Boris is also a romance in the style of Nicholas Sparks. (Sorry, Nick Sparks doesn’t like it when his books are called romances, so let’s use his word: love tragedy.)

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Cats Looking Out Windows

Ben Kliban, Cat Looking Out the Window from his calendar collection, 1970's
Ben Kliban, Cat Looking Out the Window from his calendar collection, 1970’s
Franco Matticchio cat looking out window
Franco Matticchio
Etching by Hans Thoma (1839-1924)
Etching by Hans Thoma (1839-1924)
Public and Private Life of Animals, by P. J. Stahl, illustrated by J. J. Grandville, Publication date 1877 cat
Public and Private Life of Animals, by P. J. Stahl, illustrated by J. J. Grandville, Publication date 1877
Illustration by Hans Drawing for Hans Christian Andersen's Fairy Tales. 1934 cat looking out window
Illustration by Hans Drawing for Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales. 1934
Franco Matticchio cat bird window
Franco Matticchio
Cats at the Window by Wanda Gág, 1929
Cats at the Window by Wanda Gág, 1929
Christmas Card by Edward Gorey; 1925-2000, cat and girl looking out window
Christmas Card by Edward Gorey; 1925-2000, cat and girl looking out window
André Édouard Marty (1882 - 1974) 1925 illustration for House And Garden magazine
André Édouard Marty (1882 – 1974) 1925 illustration for House And Garden magazine
Helen Oxenbury - Through the Looking Glass
Helen Oxenbury – Through the Looking Glass
Miroslav Ša šek, illustrator and writer
Miroslav Ša šek, illustrator and writer
Klaus Ensikat (german, b. 1937, Berlin, Germany) - Illustration from book Cats by Axel Eggebrecht (german, b. 1899, Dresden, Germany)
Klaus Ensikat (german, b. 1937, Berlin, Germany) – Illustration from book Cats by Axel Eggebrecht (german, b. 1899, Dresden, Germany)
Józef Wilkon's cat does not look out of the window.
Józef Wilkon’s cat does not look out of the window.

Foxes In Children’s Literature

Ebenezer Newman Downard - Winter Landscape with Fox and Hares

A fox is a wolf who sends flowers.

Ruth Weston

Arthur Applebee asked a group of pre-school children to tell him the characters of a list of animals. They were more certain of the stereotypical personalities of animals they could only have met in stories, such as brave lions or sly foxes, than of the characters of dogs or cats, where experience of specific dogs and cats came in to complicate the picture. Story characteristics are prepared for reception, so to speak; they’re consistent, they don’t contradict themselves, and they’re dispensed at the pace that understanding demands.

The Child That Books Built, Frances Spufford
Reynard the Fox by Wilhelm Von Kaulbach
Reynard the Fox by Wilhelm Von Kaulbach
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The Story Of The Kind Wolf by Wilkon and Nickl

“The Story Of The Kind Wolf” is a 1982 picture book by Jozef Wilkon, illustrated by Peter Nickl and translated into English by Marion Koenig. The story is now out of print and hard to find.

This is a Tawny Scrawny Lion plot, and very much of its time. This was the era of the vegetarian wild animal in picture books. Ecologists have long understood the importance of meat in the diet of a carnivore, and now understand how a single pack of wolves are vital to keeping an ecosystem in balance. But according to these Tawny-Scrawny-Lion plots, an ideal wilderness is one in which carnivorous animals become vegetarian. If this happened in reality, rabbits would ruin the landscape for everyone. Rabbits have ruined Australia, a topic covered metaphorically by Shaun Tan and John Marsden in The Rabbits.

Like John Brown, Rose and the Midnight Cat, this story definitely has a subtextual layer to it. Unlike John Brown, Rose and the Midnight Cat, I’m not sure it’s intended? For me, this is a subtexually a Jekyll and Hyde story, in which the fox functions symbolically as the wolf’s extreme hunger.

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Blueberries For Sal by Robert McCloskey (1948)

Blueberries For Sal (1948) is a picture book written and illustrated by Robert McCloskey, also well-known for Make Way For Ducklings. Both stories are thrillers for the preschool set, especially this one. In fact, I’m about to try and convince you that Blueberries For Sal is the inspiration behind Cormac McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men, with blueberries swapped out for drug money.

McCloskey makes use of a number of established thriller genre techniques in this story, and creates an exciting yet cosy tale. How does he accomplish that? Let’s take a look.

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