The Most Awesome Cats in Art History

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Everyone knows that cats make up a vast part of the non-porn Internet, inspiring meme after meme, speaking their own language, and even prompting the launch of a new film festival. Meow, man, meow. But it’s not only our daily visual culture that is constantly bombarded with the purry beasts, they’re all over the art world — and we’re not just talking about the sixty-five rehabilitated cat “guards” living the high life at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg! Follow your fearless feline overlords’ adventures through art history in our slideshow of select highlights.

Being a cat in Ancient Egypt was pretty boss, what with being a holy creature and all. At some point the image of the lion-headed patron Goddess Bastet downgraded into something closer to a domestic puss, but one would still get in a lot of trouble for accidentally killing a kitty. Like, executed. Aside from all the worshiping, pampering, and the occasional mummifying, the cult of cat produced many an art artifact, like this Chatte couchée avec son chaton circa 664 BC – 332 BC, now sitting at the Louvre. It’s frozen in the pose of “Yeah, that’s what’s up.”

Abraham Teniers hails from olde school Amsterdam and albeit this painting is not exactly a national treasure, Barber Shop with Monkeys and Cats (1629-1670) notably predates Dogs Playing Poker by a few hundred years.

In the following few centuries, all it took for a cat to get itself painted into a portrait was weaseling up to some cute, young female. Take this Portrait of Mademoiselle Julie Manet With Cat by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1887. Sitting for hours in a warm, still lap of folds of silk and petting hands? Sounds like a cushy job to us.

Two years after Guernica comes Pablo Picasso’s Cat Devouring A Bird, 1939. The drama! The horror! The cat, with its cubist teeth, tearing the flesh out in strands from the ripped-up breast its desperately squawking feathered breakfast. Can your psyche handle such vigorous violence?

Salvador Dalí and Philippe Halsman’s 1948 collaboration Dali Atomicus took 28 attempts. That’s 28 times that the cats were catapulted though the air, sometimes into the pathways of similarly catapulted streams of water. Champs. True champs. Well, at least these three got the ultimate celebrity photo-op.

One of David Hockney’s most impressive portraits, Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy depicted his fancy friends fashion designer Ossie Clark and the textile designer Celia Birtwell, shortly after their wedding. Like Jan van Eyck’s The Arnolfini Portrait that inspired Hockney, this 1970-1971 painting had some metaphorical imagery in it. Take the cat, staring out the window. It symbolizes that the cat just does not give a damn. Well, actually it symbolizes infidelity, envy, and Clark’s unceasing bisexual affairs that ended the marriage in 1974. The cat probably doesn’t give a damn though.

If you thought that renowned artist Chris Marker’s 1962 time-traveling epic La Jetee was a triumph of experimental filmmaking or that Sans Soleil broke all barriers of the documentary as an entity, surely you have not been witness to the glory of Chat écoutant la musique (Cat listening to music). Behold! A cat! Listening…to…music.

English photographer and artist Richard Billingham’s shameless, stand-out series Ray’s Laugh documents the life of his alcoholic, rambling father and tattooed, feisty, fleshy mother. There are many heartbreaking, intimate, colorful, tense and poignant moments here. Also, a cat having a BuzzFeed-worthy moment, apparently.

Cats found a bittersweet fate when recruited to collaborate in the action Mordovian Hour by the notorious, radical art activist crew Voina in 2007. The bitter part was getting thrown into a Moscow McDonald’s to the slogans “Death to fast food!” and “Let’s strike at globalization with homeless cats!” The sweet part was eating the food they’d ruined just by landing on it.

Any cat — even a roughly scribbled cat — is lucky to be part of art by the talented and sexy David Shrigley. This Untitled piece circa 2011 is deep, embodying the gentility and precariousness of a trusting truce in a warring, brutal natural world… Five bucks says the cat eats the mouse anyway.