How to Paint Cats
OK, I'm being silly with my title for this post. I went down to Washington, D.C. to the wonderful Smithsonian American Art Museum yesterday, perhaps my all time favorite museum.
Above is a detail out of one of SAAM's holdings, titled Man with a Cat. It's a portrait by Cecilia Beaux (1855 - 1942), an American painter who was a contemporary of John Singer Sargent. I believe it is reproduced often to meet the insatiable demands of the cat-loving art public (of which I am a member).
Born to a wealthy Philadelphia family that owned a silk factory, her mother died at age 33 after giving birth to the future artist. I've always imagined the family dynamics must have been pretty tough for Cecilia after that. Perhaps it gave her extra determination and pluck as Beaux went on to be come an amazing artist and one of the best known female painters at a time when women were almost entirely dismissed as artists.
Beaux knew her stuff. Let's look at the detail of the cat for a moment. The artist very carefully avoided getting sucked into trying to render the actual texture of the fur or the cat's whiskers. Instead she picks a pose where the light from above falls on the cat's body in a way that creates clear and simple volumes.
For example, see how the cat's face, neck and chest are lost in shadow. Then Beaux pushes the cat's two front paws out toward the viewer and into the direct light. Each paw is conceived in Beaux's mind's eye as simple cylinder. I particularly like the short curved dark lines Beaux puts on the end ot paw on our right to indicate the individual toes. Their lines curve beautifully around the cylindrical paw and evoke the "footness" of the form. You can tell Beaux was a big fan of cat feet. Who isn't?
Here's the entire painting below.
Beaux is showing us another great lesson for would-be cat painters. If you want a convincing cat, construct a place for the cat to be. Look at the space of the man's lap where the cat is ever so comfortably ensconsed. The light-bathed lap is farther away from us than the man's shadowed arm and thigh. Beaux has created an foreground that feels differently than the middleground space of the lap. Then immediately in back of the cat's fluffy ears we leave the light and plunge back into a more distant shadowed void.
Artists succeed when they fall in love with spaces. As I often tell my students, space is an emotional issue in art. Think for a moment of a dream you have had where you're being pursued by some fearsome or dangerous character. As they come closer, you get more afraid. Or the dream where someone you miss is moving still farther away from you. There you experience the physical distance as emotionally painful. Artists instinctively know that our experinece of our feelings is inseparably connected with how we experience the spaces in our lives. We feel Beaux's cat so well because she places him so convincingly on the man's lap, just as we believe the man is really sitting in that half shadowed room.
Here's one last lovely detail- the lapels of the man's jacket.
Beaux has a ball sculpting these lapels like the giant petals of a blossom of a Georgia O'Keefe flower. Beaux is finding personality for her subject in a detail others might overlook. Imagine replacing this guy's formal ourfit with just an ordinary t-shirt. You could do it, but then Beaux would have had to come up with some other unexpected detail to amplify the feelng she wanted from her sitter.
In the actual canvas if one looks closely Beaux has painted in a subtle trace of alizarin crimson (cranberry) color underneath the man's tie. Was that color actually there so prominently? Who knows, but it plays off so beautifully against the restrained creamy warm and cool greys of his jacket. Beaux probably played around a lot with the actual colors she saw, trying this and then trying that until she evoked the personality she was after.