The author Andre Dubus, whose books I publicized in the ’90s when I worked at David R. Godine, a small literary press in Boston, once told me that he thought short story writers had more in common with poets than they did with novelists. I think he was right. But I’ve always seen an even stronger connection between poets and painters—always thought they were cut from the same cloth. Both create something that’s painstakingly exact yet open to interpretation.
No two people will see the same thing when they look at a Vermeer, or a Seurat, or a Rembrandt, or a Cezanne, just like no two people will have the same reaction to a poem by E. E. Cummings or Anna Akhmatova, or Elizabeth Bishop or Wallace Stevens. And, of course, the Imagist movement in poetry, which strove to express so much through so little—concise language and precise images—is in its restraint redolent of the Impressionist movement in art, with its truncated brushstrokes, and the Pointillism movement, with its dabs of paint.
In graduate school, while studying to get my MFA in poetry, I became further intrigued by the connections between poets and painters, whether friendships like that between Gertrude Stein and Pablo Picasso, or instances where a poet found inspiration in a painting, or a painter in a poem. My final project—a book-length collection of poems—contained verse inspired by Edward Hopper’s Rooms by the Sea, Chinese artist Chao Shaoan’s Early Snow on Lotus Pond, and Amedeo Modigliani’s Portrait of Jeanne Hébuterne, to name a few. For my final paper, I attempted to translate some of Picasso’s poems into English. You’d think a Cubist would have had better line breaks.
But Picasso redeemed himself in my eyes when I saw his cat paintings—and there are more of them than I would have thought, including the admittedly disturbing Wounded Bird and Cat (for a gentler pairing, see Paul Klee’s Cat and Bird) and the slightly perplexing Lying Female Nude with Cat (it looks to be a kitten, not a cat, and it presents a couple of anatomical quandaries). But for reasons that are probably self-explanatory, I’m most drawn to his Crazy Woman with Cats.
The number of influential artists who’ve painted cats is astounding. Henri Rousseau’s The Tiger Cat has a Picasso-esque quality to it—the angular, almost pieced-together face—as does Fernand Léger’s Woman with a Cat, with its puzzle-piece person and puzzle-piece cat. Mary Cassatt’s Children Playing with a Cat is a puzzle, too—but not literally this time. It’s perplexing because the cat’s not playing at all; it’s completely conked out in the little girl’s lap.
Cassatt’s fellow Impressionist, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, was also intrigued by children and cats, giving us Young Boy with a Cat and L’Enfant au Chat (Mademoiselle Julie Manet), where the child looks pensive but the cat is the epitome of contentment. That child was, in fact, the niece of painter Édouard Manet, who himself contributed Madame Manet with a Cat (I think, if you’re a painter, at some point you have to paint your wife with her cat—that is, if you want her to stay your wife) and Les Chats (three small cat etchings on a single sheet of paper; I’m not a tattoo type, but if I were, they’d be contenders).
But back to Renoir, who also painted La Jeune Fille au Chat (“Young Girl with a Cat”) and Sleeping Girl (aka, “Girl with a Cat”). It’s worth noting that, in the latter painting, the cat is sleeping, too, his right paw resting in the girl’s left hand. The girl looks exhausted. She’s wearing sensible shoes. Her skirt is blue and her cat is blue, and from a distance you can’t tell them apart. In the same vein as Sleeping Girl, there’s Renoir’s Sleeping Cat. “Looks familiar,” Mom said, nodding in our cat Ting’s direction when I showed her Renoir’s ball of a cat.
But my favorite Renoir painting is Woman with Cat. It was done almost a hundred years before I was born, and yet it’s so familiar. The woman holds her tabby the same way we hold Ting—cheek to cheek, her left arm supporting the cat’s back legs. Her skin is pale, her eyebrows dark. There’s no ring on her finger, but she’s happy.
It’d be a challenge to find a major artist of the nineteenth or twentieth century who didn’t paint—or at least sketch—a cat. There’s Vincent van Gogh’s Hand with Bowl and a Cat, done in black chalk. There’s Paul Gauguin’s Mimi and Her Cat (gouache on cardboard) and his Little Cat, which I like even better (“Would go great in our living room,” said Mom, of the black, leopard-like cat crawling toward brown and burnt-orange balls). And speaking of black cats, there’s Henri Matisse’s Girl with a Black Cat, in which neither of them look particularly pleased.
On the other end of the color spectrum is Pierre Bonnard’s The White Cat (oil on canvas, longest legs ever). Bonnard also painted Sitting Woman with a Cat, where the curve of the woman’s dress melts into the curve of the cat’s tail. Yes.
And of course there’s German Expressionist Franz Marc, lover of vibrant colors. When he wasn’t painting deer, he was painting cats—a prolific cat-chronicler if ever there was one. Two Cats, Blue and Yellow and Cat on a Yellow Pillow are my favorites. But I also like Cats, Red and White, Three Cats, Cat Behind a Tree, and Girl with Cat.
If I had a dime for every painter with a painting titled Girl with Cat—or something like it. The names of the paintings are downright boring. How interesting, though, that cats are almost always portrayed by painters not as the solitary animals so many authors have made them out to be, but as communal creatures who take delight in their human companions.
Cats and painters. Painters and cats. Not only are cats the frequent subject of paintings, they have also been the beloved pets of painters. And that’s where things get sad. Some of the most cat-loving painters never actually painted their cats—or anyone else’s, as far as I know. Chief among them, Viennese painter Gustav Klimt, who liked cats so much he permitted them in his studio, and even allowed them to play among his sketches. As Lee Hendrix, senior curator of drawings at the J. Paul Getty Museum, said, “[Klimt] posed models on a bed so that their languorous bodies could suggest floating, a motif that’s very important in his art.” It seems he had another reason for posing his models on a bed. Klimt fathered at least fourteen children, mostly with said models. If only he hadn’t been so busy “studying” the human form—and, sadly, contracting syphilis. His love of lines would have lent itself so beautifully to the feline form.
There are three other painters who may or may not have had cats, but who, to my great disappointment, didn’t paint them. The first is French Impressionist Edgar Degas, who chose the ballerina as his muse when the lithe, supple cat was there for the offering. He should have taken his cue from Leonardo da Vinci, who did a twenty-three-drawing Study of Cat Movements and Positions, and concluded: “The smallest feline is a masterpiece.” The second is Amedeo Modigliani, who chose to paint the long, sad oval of the human face instead of the fine and angular face of the feline. And the third is Edward Hopper. All those windows, and not a cat in them. All that light to bask in, wasted.
LISSA WARREN is also the author of The Savvy Author’s Guide to Book Publicity: A Comprehensive Resource—From Building the Buzz to Pitching the Press. She holds a B.S. in English Education from Miami University and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Bennington College. Her poetry has appeared in such publications as Quarterly West, Oxford Magazine, Black Warrior Review, and Verse, and she serves as a Poetry Editor for the literary magazine Post Road. She works in Boston as Vice President, Senior Director of Publicity at Da Capo Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group.
Excerpted from The Good Luck Cat: How a Cat Saved a Family and a Family Saved a Cat by Lissa Warren (October 2014). Reprinted courtesy of Lyons Press.