Meow No! 7 Paintings by Artists Who Have Probably Never Seen a Cat

Cats are weird, but surely not this weird.

John Raphael Smith, Miss Sukey and her Nursery (1772). Courtesy of the British Museum.

Our feline friends may now be the toast of the internet and social media, but they have also long served as subjects and inspirations to artists all the way back to the Middle Ages. Renoir has captured the blissful languor of the cat, just as Picasso depicted its playful savagery and Chagall its kineticism. And that’s not mentioning Louis Wain, who enriched the genre with the sheer volume of his anthropomorphized cat paintings. 

But sadly, not all artists get cats. In fact, some have turned out artworks that portray them less like our furry housemates and more inexplicably strange, even grotesque creatures. Cats are weird, but surely not this weird. Below, we bring you seven times artists got these purrballs wrong—so wrong. 

 

George Catlin
Le Chat d’Ostende (1868) 

George Catlin, Le Chat d’Ostende (1868). Courtesy of georgecatlin.org.

The wonderfully named Catlin is better known for his paintings of native life in North, Central, and South America in the 19th century. This cat portrait, then, is an anomaly in his oeuvre just as the depicted feline is an anomaly in itself. The Ostend cat, seen toying with a roll of thread, is drawn with a distended body and a rounded head, complete with humanlike features. Cat? More like cat-astrophe, right? 

 

Abraham Mignon
The Overturned Bouquet (1660–79) 

Abraham Mignon, The Overturned Bouquet (1660–79). Courtesy of the Rijksmuseum.

Mignon’s rendering of this massive bouquet of peonies, poppies, and tulips is unparalleled, with even the last alighting butterfly depicted with meticulous detail. Too bad the still life painter, famed for his mastery of realism, didn’t lend his eye and skill to the frightened—and frightful—kitty tucked away at the bottom-left of the canvas. Its silent scream is our own. 

 

Circle of Ferdinand van Kessel the Elder
A Musical Gathering of Cats (ca. 17th century) 

Circle of Ferdinand van Kessel the Elder, A Musical Gathering of Cats (ca. 17th century). Courtesy of Bonhams.

The only thing more unsettling than anthropomorphized cats are anthropomorphized cats that look like this. It’s such a feast of unsuccessfully drawn tabbies that we’re not sure where to start—the one centered in the background that looks like a rare breed of owl-cat or the one cowering in the right corner having just gazed into the abyss? Also, these cats are huge… or maybe they’re small? Like we said, unsettling. 

 

Pierre Bonnard
Le Chat Blanc (1894) 

Pierre Bonnard, Le Chat Blanc (1894). © Musée d’Orsay, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice Schmidt.

To be fair, Bonnard had intended this work as a comic portrayal of a cat arching its back, hence the elongated legs and distorted body. “Art is not nature,” according to the French Symbolist, whose preparatory drawings for this painting evinced numerous attempts to improve (or exaggerate?) the position and shape of his feline’s paws. For that, this weird cat belongs on this list—with a knowing wink. 

 

A French Medieval manuscript (1454) 

No list of failed cat depictions can go without mention of the Medieval scribes who sketched felines into the margins of manuscripts. Back then, cats, while accepted as domestic pets, were also associated with paganism or even the devil, hence their symbolic, often freakish appearance in Medieval texts. This ghastly kitty, with its tiny paws and human mien, is just one example in the internet’s newly beloved genre. 

 

Gaspare Traversi
The Secret Letter (ca. 1755)  

Gaspare Traversi, The Secret Letter (ca. 1755). Photo: Web Gallery of Art.

Traversi’s dramatic painting captures the arrival of a love letter, which is delivered by a page to a young woman whose elderly parents peer on with relentless curiosity. But just as eye-catching is the beast that’s idling behind the lady’s chair. From its face to its odd body to its sheer size, you might read it as a foreboding omen, but no, it’s a cat. 

 

Fernando Botero
Still Life With Green Soup (1972) 

Fernando Botero, Still Life With Green Soup (1972). Courtesy of Christie’s.

In his lifetime, the Colombian artist rendered dozens of cats—plump ones, cute ones, and even an outsized one installed in the Raval quarter in Barcelona. Then there are the, um, less adorable ones, including this still life featuring a vacant-faced, sausage-shaped feline. It’s surely a stylistic choice on Botero’s part, but that doesn’t make it a less bewildering cat. 

 

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