Posted by: avila22a | December 8, 2015

Victorian Cat Ladies

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Though keeping cats as pets began in the earliest of times, it became increasingly popular in the 19th century. Animals in general became status symbols and symbols of the ability to control the uncontrollable.

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In particular, cats and women became closely related. No matter what the sex, cats and women were compared because of the understanding that both were domestic and indoor creatures. In general, men compared women to cats in a largely negative manner: “An animal so keen on maintaining her appearance, so silky, so tiny, so eager for caresses, so ardent and responsive, so graceful and supple….; an animal that makes the night her day, and who shocks decent people with the noise of her orgies, can have only one single analogy in this world, and that analogy is of the feminine kind” (Toussenel, Zoologies Passionelle). The two were often thought to have dispositions of prostitutes, signaling a hard and fast belief that women were either chaste or promiscuous, domesticated or wild.

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Because of their perceived devious femininity and sexuality, women were often compared to cats and vice versa. Both were said to be eager to escape domesticity and likely to be seduced by immoral nature.

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Like Victorian women, cats were described to be “the embodiment of elegance, grace and agility… Very little, in fact, is needed to make the Cat stray from the paths of domesticity and return again to the happier hunting-grounds of its remote ancestors.”

Besides stereotyping women, cats became a new mascot of advertising. Most fittingly cats were seen in a large amount of soap advertisements and became synonymous with cleanliness. 


Responses

  1. Recently there was a portrait that gained some attention online that I think fits into this line of thought quite well. The portrait, completed in 1891 by Carl Kahler, is titled “My Wife’s Lovers” (which you can see here: http://www.architecturaldigest.com/story/carl-kahler-my-wifes-lovers-auction along with a short article about the insane amount it sold for at auction). It is a painting of 42 cats, each with a distinct expression, which took Kahler 3 years to paint. Apparently they were the 42 favorite of the 350 cats the woman who commissioned the painting owned.

    I find this painting to be fascinating for a number of reasons and I think your post sheds some light on the significance of it. Though the woman does not appear in the painting, I think your point about cats as status symbols is clear in the portrait. Aside from the sheer number of cats, the portrait is also notable for the way the cats are painted in front of a background which itself contains clear indicators of status. We’ve talked about portrait settings in class and (what appear to be) silk curtains and the gold details in background function similarly to the way in which clothing and jewelry might indicate status in a portrait.

    The other thing I find quite interesting about this painting is the title, which purportedly came from a joke made by the husband of the woman who commissioned the painting. Though there is nothing sexual about the portrait, the title does immediately bring sexuality to the forefront of the viewers mind. I think that this portrait is interesting to consider through the lens of your point about the “perceived devious femininity and sexuality” and the nature of vanity that led to women and cats being frequently compared.

  2. In researching more about the increasing “pet culture” of the Victorian era, I also learned that this period was known as the “golden age” of a much more morbid animal-related practice: taxidermy. Mounted animals were a popular feature of home décor, in middle-class homes and even for the aristocracy – Queen Victoria herself amassed a huge collection of bird taxidermy. Before the Victorian Era, taxidermy was mainly used by hunters, scientists and explorers to preserve specimens, but these lacked any sort of artistic or decorative appeal. The Great Exhibition of 1851 in London changed this, as English ornithologist John Hancock displayed an artistic taxidermy tableaux of stuffed birds. Soon, the public was smitten. Many Victorians were as fond of their pets when they were dead as when they were alive. Besides being commemorated in portraits like the ones above, a beloved dog, cat or horse could be resurrected and immortalized for eternal display in a library or sitting room, and perhaps even turned into some sort of useful object — a hoof could become a paperweight.

    Even stranger were the creations of Walter Potter, who arranged thousands of stuffed rabbits, squirrels, kittens, birds and so on into weirdly charming anthropomorphized scenes. Bunnies became pupils at a village school, kittens got married and had tea parties, and squirrels argued over card games. He built a wildly popular museum to display his creations, and they’re definitely a must-see: http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/gallery/2013/sep/13/curious-world-walter-potter-pictures-taxidermist-victorian

    To me, it seems like taxidermy’s popularity during the 1800s was a product of the Victorian penchants for naturalism and collection colliding. Victorians seemed to have a passion for nature but only in a decidedly non-naturalistic form, transforming wild animals into sought-after decorative art forms. Pets could transition from living companions to immobile accessories – perhaps a decidedly more morbid, three-dimensional version of commemoration via photography. Amassing large collections of “stuffed” animals was also a hobby and a goal, with tropical birds being exceedingly popular for many, including the Queen. Categorizing and typifying nature seems to me to be an activity people of this era were drawn to – perhaps along the same lines as casting lower-class people into “types” as in Thompson’s “Victorian London Street Life”?


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