Today, October 29, is National Cat Day.
Artists throughout history have had close relationships with felines. “The smallest feline is a masterpiece” is a quote attributed to Leonardo da Vinci; Salvador Dalí had a pet ocelot; Henri Matisse was very fond of his two cats, Minouche and Coussi; both Pablo Picasso and Georgia O’Keeffe once owned Siamese cats (interestingly, both Pablo Picasso and Georgia O’Keeffe also owned dogs); according to some reports, Ai Wei Wei has more than three dozen cats; during the time Andy Warhol lived with his mother, they surrounded themselves with cats, all of whom were apparently named Sam (except for one named Hester).
In the case of the artist Balthus, his first feline love came into his life at an early age, in the form of a stray that Balthus adopted in 1918 when he was ten; he named the cat Mitsou. A year later, the cat disappeared, leaving the boy bereft. In response to his grief, Balthus made 40 graphite and ink drawings chronicling his brief history with Mitsou and his sadness after the cat’s departure. These drawings were shared with Rainer Maria Rilke, a close friend of Balthus’s mother, and the series would go on to appear, in 1921, in a small book with an introduction by Rilke himself.
Here are three of the 40 drawings – the 1st, 23rd, and very last, which depicts a tearful Balthus.
Art in America recently explored the Mitsou drawings in a short interview with Sabine Rewald, the curator of the current Balthus exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art and author of the beautiful accompanying catalogue, which is published by The Metropolitan Museum of Art and distributed by Yale University Press.