Cats in 20th Century History and Art (Part 3-Picasso)

Picasso CatsWhen not participating in dangerous flights and setting new records, the cat, just as it had done in previous centuries, played an integral part in art and photography. Enduring as a cultural and social icon, the cat symbolized femininity, sensuality, domesticity, lust, and evil. An essential ingredient for cultural and social commentary, the cat was all that it had ever been. Artists such as Picasso, Balthus, Felix Vallaton, and Leonor Fini and many more used this to great effect. (See complete list of 20th century artists)  Not exclusive to Western art, the use of cats in art blossomed in the East as well. 

One of the most influential artists of the 20th century, Picasso was known to have loved cats and was photographed with kittens or cats throughout his lifetime.

Picasso Cats

He also gave tribute to their importance as cultural and social icons in his many paintings.  In one of his earliest works ascribed to his Blue Period, both figures in Woman and Cat seem to be inextricably united in the traditional sense.  

Crazy cat ladies, already well documented, were not forgotten by Picasso who painted Crazy Lady(Woman) with Cats.

Crazy Woman with Cats 1901 Private Collection Picasso Cats Cats in Art History

Crazy Woman with Cats
Private Collection

However, from 1935 – 1945, the war years, Picasso produced many paintings with cats that focused on the dark side of feline nature.  During those years, instead of fleeing France during the German occupation, Picasso stayed in Paris and continued to paint.  Many of Picasso’s works expressed symbolic references to the political situations of the time.  Cat Seizing a Bird, April 1939, depicts a self–satisfied cat triumphantly gripping a defenseless bird, its flesh torn to reveal a gaping wound.

Here the cat represents the Fascist General Franco defeating Madrid the preceding March.  In 1941, while living with his mistress Dora Maar, he painted Dora Maar au chat, now one of the world’s most expensive paintings, having been sold in 2006 for over 95 million dollars.  The painting shows Picasso’s mistress seated with a small black cat (kitten) behind her shoulder seemingly balancing on the chair back.  Picasso uses the cat and all its symbolism to express Dora Maar’s predatory cat-likeness.  Maar’s long fingers and sharpened nails remind one of the savageness of feline claws.  Dora Maar was a pivotal force in Picasso’s life perhaps the only mistress that was his intellectual equal, and he likened her to an “Afghan cat”.


In the 1960’s, Picasso painted his wife Jacqueline Roque with cats as well. In this painting Jacqueline sits with a small black cat on her lap. The cat’s eyes are so round and large that they reflect an innocence and beauty that matches Jacqueline’s.  Picasso perhaps hints that even though she is a cat, she is a kind one.  Her hands are placed on the arms of the chair just as Dora Maar’s are.  However, her hands are much different from Maar’s, short, stubby and almost mannish; they are not predatory like Maar’s. 

In this decade Picasso did a series of paintings of cats and lobsters as well as crabs on the beach.  Lobster and Cat (1965) could just be a humorous study of a cat surprised by a lobster, but it could also symbolize the conflict of the time, the Cuban missile crisis.   

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