Cats in the 19th Century (Part 8-Cats in Art-Renoir and Rousseau)

The great artists Renoir and Rousseau appreciated cats in art and included our mischievous felines in their paintings as symbols of magic, demons, sexuality and domesticity.  In Renoir’s Madame Georges Charpentier and Her Children, the cat is barely visible on her lap. A very close and careful look at this painting reveals deeper images and meanings. There is a monstrous face on the curtain and skulls in Madame’s dress. A cat sits on her lap looking up at her barely visible, disguised, an allusion to the fact that women and cats were still tied together through their association with sexuality and magic. Even though Marcel Proust once commented on the painting as representing the epitome of the bourgeois home, he obviously did not see the secondary images and did not realize that Renoir’s message was ambiguous.



In Le Garcon au Chat, Renoir depicts a very sensuous scene with the cat as a symbol of sexuality and woman.

Le Garcon au Chat (The Boy with a Cat) Oil on Canvas 1868 Pierre Auguste Renoir cats in art

Le Garcon au Chat (The Boy with a Cat)
Oil on Canvas
Pierre Auguste Renoir


Henri Rousseau believed that a person’s attitude toward cats revealed his/her character. For example, he said, that those who have a controlling nature, “….do not like cats because the cat is free and will never consent to become a slave.” 


Rousseau also known as Le Douanier, was a self taught artist, and much of his life was spent as a customs officer, hence the nickname Le Douanier.  He started painting at age 49 and was ridiculed by most artists of the time.  However, Picasso and some surrealists noticed his talent and genius.  His paintings are of the primitive style and usually have a person standing in the forefront of a landscape as in the Portrait de Mme M.  Rousseau also painted a portrait of the writer and naval officer Pierre Loti, who just happened to be a cat lover as well.  Loti even wrote a short story called The Lives of Two Cats. 


From The Argus, an Melbourne paper dated 1923, we have this article  Pierre Loti’s Cats.

Pierre Loti, whose death recently is so deeply deplored, adored cats, the New York “World” tells us.  For many years he was president of a society of cat-lovers known as “La Patte de Velours”  (“The Velvet Paw”).  In the story he wrote “for my son Samuel when he has learned to read,” Loti describes how he once saw the soul of a cat reveal itself suddenly for a moment “sad as a human soul and searching for my soul with pleading tenderness.”  In his “Le Livre de la Pitie et de la Mort” there is a terrible picture of a cat dying of mange.  “It must have felt in its awful plight the worst of all sufferings of a cat—that of not being able to make its toilet, to lick its fur, and to groom itself with the care cats always bestow upon this operation.”  A cat which formed part of the Loti household for ten years had her own visiting cards, inscribed “Mlle Moumoutte.” 


Want to know more about the cat in literature, art and history? Then Revered and Reviled is the book for  you. Now available on Amazon in both paperback and Kindle formats. 

Revered and Reviled: A Complete History of the Domestic Cat, cat history, cats


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