A Selection of Cats From Ancient Art to Present Day

[Cat sleeping], about 1865. Albumen silver print. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 84.XC.702.203

Examining how cats have been historically represented since the ancient world.

By Alexandria Sivak
Senior Communications Specialist
J. Paul Getty Trust


Furry friends can be comforting companions while many around the world are working from home. Anyone who has wondered what their cat does all day while they’re gone may have found out (answer: mostly sleeping).

Artists have always used cats as subjects, whether stray or owned, big or small, well-behaved or naughty. Here are some of the most charming examples of cats in the Getty Museum’s collection, from ancient times to the present day.

Ancient Cat Wants a Snack

Neck-Amphora, about 490 B.C., attributed to the Lotus Bud Group Terracotta. 13 5/8 × 8 7/16 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 68.AE.17. Digital image courtesy of Getty Open Content

This Etruscan amphora shows a nude young man holding a morsel of food for a long-tailed cat. The cat seems to leap up to snatch the tempting treat. Depictions of cheetahs and cats as domestic pets occur relatively frequently in Etruscan art, although scenes of cat-teasing are rare and are more typical in Greek art. On vases and tomb paintings of the same period, domestic felines can be seen crouched expectantly under banquet tables and couches.

Saint Jerome Gives a Lion a Helping Hand

Saint Jerome Extracting a Thorn from a Lion’s Paw, second quarter of 15th century, Master of the Murano Gradual. Tempera and gold leaf on parchment, 8 1/4 × 6 1/2 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Ms. 106 (2010.21), recto. Digital image courtesy of Getty Open Content

This illuminated manuscript leaf depicts a story from the life of Saint Jerome. One day, a lion entered the monastery where Jerome lived, causing his fellow monks to flee, but Jerome recognized that the beast was injured and he cured it by removing a thorn from its paw.

The saint’s body fills the foreground, setting off the delicate gold tweezers Jerome uses to extract the thorn. In the background, a monk approaches with a pot of ointment and a bandage, looking a little apprehensive. It’s a poignant image, showing the moment when the lion submits to the saint, and the saint’s concentration as he removes the thorn. While cats are often a source of comfort for humans at home, this tale turns that idea on its head, albeit with a much bigger cat.

Breathing Life into Lion Cubs

Two Lions (detail), about 1270, Franco-Flemish. Tempera colors, gold leaf, and ink on parchment, 7 1/2 × 5 5/8 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Ms. Ludwig XV 3 (83.MR.173), fol. 68. Digital image courtesy of Getty Open Content

In an extreme example of the circle of life, two ferocious-looking lions stand over a small lifeless cub lying on its back at the top of a mountain. This image represents two of the lion’s principal characteristics. First, as medieval bestiary texts explain, the lion “loves to saunter on the tops of mountains.” Second, according to legend, when a lioness gives birth to her cubs, they are dead. It is only when their father, coming on the third day, breathes in their faces that they come to life. Here the lion on the left stands over the cub, opening his mouth to revive him. Few Europeans ever saw lions, but the artist here did a remarkably good job of capturing their features.

In the Middle Ages the lion, the king of beasts, was used as a symbol of Christ. So the story of the cub’s three days of lifelessness was interpreted as a reflection of the three days between Jesus’ Crucifixion and his Resurrection.

Cat Lady

“Le chat” or The Cat at the Window, about 1857–1858, Jean-François Millet. Conté crayon and pastel with stumping and blending, fixed on wove paper, 19 5/8 × 15 1/2 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 96.GF.12.  Digital image courtesy of Getty Open Content

In this shadowy drawing by Jean-François Millet, a black cat with glowing eyes enters a bedroom and looks toward a startled man who pokes his head through the bed curtains. This drawing illustrates “The Cat Who Became a Woman,” a fable by the 17th-century French writer Jean de La Fontaine. According to the story, a man becomes infatuated with his cat and convinces Destiny to change her into a woman. He marries her, but on their first night together she springs from the marriage bed to chase a mouse across the bedroom floor. The fable’s moral is “the truth will out:” no matter how much one’s outward appearance changes, one’s essential character remains. In this case, the character has whiskers and a set of claws.

Feline Fine

Magdaleine Pinceloup de la Grange, née de Parseval, 1747, Jean-Baptiste Perronneau. Oil on canvas, 25 5/8 × 20 5/8 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 84.PA.665. Digital image courtesy of Getty Open Content

In this painting by Jean-Baptiste Perronneau, Magdaleine Pinceloup de la Grange gazes into the distance, wearing a fine dress accented by flowers, ribbons, and pearls. But in her arms is a more interesting subject, a large gray-blue cat who looks like he’s over it.

Based on its large size and distinctive coloration, the cat can be identified as a Chartreux, one of the oldest and most cherished French breeds. Perronneau included feline companions in several of his portraits of female subjects, reinforcing the elegance and sophistication of his sitters. Here, the bells on the Chartreux’s collar echo the pearls around Magdaleine’s neck, suggesting that cat and sitter alike are refined objects.

Kitty in a Carafe

Kitty Series. Hoosac., 1871, John P. Soule. Hand-colored albumen silver print. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 84.XC.1158.214. Digital image courtesy of Getty Open Content

John P. Soule’s “Kitty” series has his feline friend in a number of purrrfect poses, from playing with yarn to sitting awkwardly in a water pitcher. Like many photographers in the 19th century, Soule used stereographs to share these fanciful images with the public. The stereograph, according to the American Antiquarian Society, “was the 19th century predecessor of the Polaroid, with an imaginative flair.”

Two almost identical photographs are displayed side by side on cardboard, and viewed in a device called the stereoscope that makes the photographs appear three-dimensional. This kitty must have been a very cooperative subject – Soule took its picture many times.

Originally published by The Iris, 03.23.2020, under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.