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Book Scene: Cats As Art and Artist, Character and Creator

By Stuart Mitchner

I’m looking at two photographs. In one my father is sitting with our first cat on his lap, a Siamese male named Kiloo, pronounced “kee-oo.” The small, framed photo occupies a shelf on this desk with an unframed one of me half a century later slouched on the living room sofa with our tuxedo cat, Dizzy, on my lap. Kiloo is poised, as if planning another attack on the clawed-to-rags arms of the living room sofa. Not Dizzy. He’s the picture of contentment, one big white “this-is-mine” paw on my leg. I thought of Kiloo as soon as I opened The Big New Yorker Book of Cats (Random House 2013), where the first thing you see is a full-page color photograph of the cat-clawed arm of a sofa — minor damage compared to the havoc wreaked by Kiloo.

The First Book

Since anthropomorphic “funny-animal” cats are never major players in the Walt Disney and Classic Comics that were my favored reading material during the reign of Kiloo, my first cat-centric reading experience would have to have been Freddy the Detective by Walter R. Brooks (Dell Yearling 1979), which I read in a used 1950s edition. Although Freddy, the well-read pig, is the hero, the character who steals the show is Jinx the cat, who plays Huck Finn to Freddy’s Tom Sawyer. Jinx also lives up to the jazz world image of “cat” as the epitome of cool, which is the reason our Dizzy was named for Dizzy Gillespie.

Cats as Artists

Discussing Jessica Maddox’s The Internet Is for Cats: How Animal Images Shape Our Digital Lives (Rutgers University Press paperback 2022) in a June 22 New York Review of Books round-up of recent cat books, Gregory Hayes suggests that while dogs “strive untidily for greatness” like Picasso and Beethoven, cats are “sensitive, precise, in love with nuance,” characteristics that make Hayes think of Klee and Ravel when he’s actually describing qualities I associate with the writing of Ernest Hemingway. Forget the macho stereotype (in one of my favorite photos, Papa is cuddling a tuxedo cat that could be Dizzy’s second cousin 50 times removed), all you have to do is read short stories such as “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” (not to mention “Cat in the Rain”) and you appreciate Hemingway’s understanding of cats and the way they navigate the world.

The most obvious challenge to the whole dog-cat-as-artists idea is that the truly great creators and stylists have qualities in common with both animals, as well as a variety of others, from owls to mountain lions.

Cats as Characters

Cat owners have often named their pets for fictional characters. When I was still living with my parents, an instantly lovable marmalade shorthair came to us already named Sam, who soon was sharing his Puss’n Boots cat food with a delightfully quirky tabby stray we named Penrod, an homage to Princetonian Booth Tarkington’s Penrod and Sam. Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles gave us the perfect name for the pregnant outcast who delivered Dizzy, the runt of a litter of five. Still trying to cope with Dizzy’s untimely death at 12, we adopted newborn brother and sister tuxedos we named after the effervescent couple from the Thin Man movies, Nick and Nora Charles.

Nora as Mignon

I thought of Nora when I saw the late Susan Herbert’s illustrations in Cats Galore Encore: A New Compendium of Cultured Cats (Thames and Hudson 2021), whose cover features a self-portrait of a bandaged ginger Vincent Van Gogh. A still more fetching example of Herbert’s art is the feline version of Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring on the cover of Cats Galore, the first compendium, published after Herbert’s 2014 death, with selected works from a series that began in 1990 with The Cats Gallery of Art.

Nora would never sit still for Vermeer, at least not in her wild youth when she was capable of astonishing acrobatics, sliding down the banister and once attempting to swing from a chandelier. In her mellower and more lovable later years, she inspired thoughts of an imaginary 19th-century portrait, with Nora crouched at the feet of Franz Schubert as he composed, gazing up at him as if he and the world were one. I mention Schubert because she made an irresistible match with Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s creation Mignon, the subject of some of Schubert’s most beloved lieder. “In her whole system of proceedings,” Goethe writes, “there was something very singular. She never walked up or down the stairs, but jumped. She would spring along by the railing, and before you were aware would be sitting quietly above upon the landing…. She was frolicsome beyond all wont.”

Van Vechten’s Bible

The Tiger in the House: A Cultural History of the Cat (New York Review Classics 2007) by novelist, critic, and photographer Carl Van Vechten (1880-1964), was first published in 1920 and reprinted many times. Arguably the bible of cat literature, this big, lavish, scholarly volume has been called “the best single treatise on the cat” and “a treasure house of literary gossip.” Like so many of my books, this one, the 1936 edition, has passed through the secondhand bookstores of Manhattan and therefore embodies three of my favorite things — cats, used bookstores, and New York City.

New York Cats

Cats in the city are popular subjects. Felines of New York (Simon & Schuster 2015) is presented by Jim Tews in the style of Brandon Stanton’s wildly popular series Humans of New York. In Shop Cats of New York (Harper Design 2016) by cat blogger Tamar Arslanian and photographer Andrew Marttila, the shops include Bleecker Street Records, where Keetah, the cat on the book’s cover, is shown lounging atop bins of blues LPs in “the relative solitude of her basement lair where she retreats for peace and quiet among the vintage vinyl.”

Always Great Gifts

On the subject of cat books as gifts, the first that comes to mind is Alice Muncaster and Ellen Yanow’s The Cat Made Me Buy It!: A Collection of Cats Who Sold Yesterday’s Products (Three Rivers Press 1984), which includes 116 full-color photographs of cats appearing in scores of different ads and promotions created over the previous century. We’ve owned the paperback edition of this charming book for the better part of 30 years, which probably explains why I can’t find our copy. Never, ever would we throw it away or sell it, perish the thought, but if I don’t stop searching, I’ll never finish this article. At least we can include an image of the cover.

The Book Of The Cat (Laurence King 2017) makes a great Christmas present, as one Princeton Magazine staff member can attest. By Angus Hyland, a partner at Pentagram Design London, and Caroline Roberts, a journalist and author, it offers, according to Barnes and Noble, “a cool and quirky collection of feline art and illustration by artists from around the world.”

In the Company of Cats (British Library 2014) showed up under the Christmas tree at our house some years ago and has been a family favorite ever since. Thanks to the whimsical Louis Wain cover image of two cats in nightshirts having a pillow fight, it’s been on display in the living room, a cheerful reminder of what life was like in the early years of Nick and Nora, though Nick, who died in 2018, was never a match for his sister when it came to terpsichorean antics. Over the past week, the third anniversary of Nora’s death, the book has been on my bedside table. The page I go back to most often is headed “Tableaux Parisiens,” or Baudelaire’s Cat, an etching from Les Fleurs du Mal showing a man and a cat gazing out a window together at a smoky panorama of Paris. It doesn’t matter that the view from the window Nora and I were looking through was simply a Princeton cul de sac. Winter or spring, summer or fall, whether watching a few flurries of snow, or falling leaves, she’d be perched on one or another of the various books I’d left on the chaise, as often as not the one I was reading or writing about.

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