Game Turkey and Rabbit, George Hetzel, 1850
I’ve never been fond of this type of “hunting art” depicting the prey after it’s been shot, but this one has an interesting twist—a gray kitty intent on stealing the rabbit! She’s even put a few scratches in the skin. I could see this as an advertisement or a package label for “raw and natural feline diet”, except for the cabbage in the lower right.
I’ve seen plenty of paintings of wild game, but not with cats. In fact, I saw an exhibit of “The Animal in Art” at Carnegie Museum of Art several years ago, and there was plenty of wildlife, farm animals, and dogs, but precious few domestic felines. Finding a feline in a classic painting, when the symbolism of every detail in the painting was intentional, is indeed a rare and exciting thing, and as we can often interpret the artist’s feelings about the subject or certain details in the composition by how they’ve rendered them, I would say that Hetzel was a feline sympathizer and perhaps even enjoyed sharing the exploits of his favorite feline thief. Cats were generally not seen in a positive light and were rarely painted at all as if they didn’t exist, with only the occasional momcat with litter of kittens in the barn or cute children with cuddly kittens.
Cats often symbolized undesirable traits—faithlessness, evil, cruelty—unlike dogs who symbolized loyalty, home and love. That doesn’t mean that was how everyone saw cats to be all the time, but only the accepted symbolic nature in prior eras, but we can see the remnants of these perceptions today in how people who don’t know cats perceive them.
Comparing what feline artists paint today, it’s also interesting to see how painters have rendered cats. Breed dogs have always been popular in painting, and even street dogs make frequent appearances, often in as clear and extreme detail as humans in portraiture, but the cats I’ve found in older paintings are often very strange, as this one if you could see it up close. The face and body are often somewhat misshapen, with rounded torsos more like a rabbit’s, overly large eyes and elongated noses, ears strangely facing outward instead of forward, and paws more like a dog’s or a rabbit’s with claws visible even at rest. I guess if cats were largely elusive, artists would take their best guesses.
Gory as it may seem today, paintings of this type were very popular both in Europe and America and were classed as still lifes representing the plenitude people expected in their homes. Just as arrangements of fruits and finery, they were considered fine examples of a classic scene and rendered in extreme detail. There were marketplaces, but food wasn’t at the grocery store as we know it until fewer than 100 years ago and the ability to obtain and put by an ample supply of food was a source of great pride. People hung paintings like this and those famously lush and lovely fruit plates in dining rooms and parlors. The fruity and flowery still lifes have remained popular because they are pretty, but these have fallen by the wayside.
I visited the Westmoreland Museum of American Art in Greensburg, PA over the weekend and this painting was in their permanent collection of works from the pre-industrial era. George Hetzel, as well as many other artists in this collection, were part of the “Scalp Level School” of landscape painting (Scalp Level is a place name, think of “Hudson River School”, though perhaps it refers to another gory era in our history). I was excited to see this for the first time because the landscapes are so familiar, mostly from Western Pennsylvania; in fact, before I realized that I looked at one of the first paintings and said, “Look, limestone boulders and American Hemlock, someone painted one of the gorges along the Youghiogheny River,” recognizing the quality of light and the trees and plants in the painting—but no one seriously painted Western PA, right? Wrong, here was a room full of local landscapes still easily recognizable, even in the post-industrial era.