Visual Culture

These Smithsonian Archival Photos Show Famous Artists with Their Cats

Portrait of Carl Fischer  with cat. Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images.

Portrait of Carl Fischer with cat. Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images.

If Instagram had been around during ’s lifetime, you can be sure his feed would have been filled with cat photos. His three cats—Minouche, Coussi, and La Puce—were never far from him while he painted. Likewise, kept his Siamese friend Minou close beside him, and famously owned a ocelot named Babou (both cats may well have become feline influencers like Maru or Lil’ Bub).
Indeed, many of art history’s famous artists have taken comfort in the companionship of cats; they, too, have abided by the demands of such charming yet fickle creatures.
In the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art—which houses documents, photographs, and diaries that paint a broader picture of the lives of artists—there are, unsurprisingly, a large number of cat photos. The curator of manuscripts, Mary Savig, recently dug deep into the Smithsonian’s vaults and published a compendium of these images in the book Artful Cats (2019).
But the project didn’t begin as a concerted effort to uncover the felines that influenced famous artists. In the foreword, Smithsonian Archives of American Art director Kate Haw writes that the book was “inevitable” based on the popularity of cats—not just on the internet (she points to Grumpy Cat’s 8.5 million followers), but in the Smithsonian’s own library, too. Based on its collection, artists seem to favor cats over other pets: While ’s pet crow, Caw-Caw, makes an appearance, as does ’s daschund, Archie, it’s “cats that rule the Archives,” Haw notes. Here, we share excerpts from Artful Cats, highlighting 10 famous artists and their cats.

Hedda Sterne with Poussin

Hedda Sterne with Poussin. Image from Artful Cats  by Mary Savig, published by the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art, 2019. Courtesy of the publishers.

Hedda Sterne with Poussin. Image from Artful Cats by Mary Savig, published by the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art, 2019. Courtesy of the publishers.

“Romanian-born (1910–2011) was a key figure (and one of the few women) in the legendary of painters. In this photograph, Sterne—in an elegant black dress—affectionately scratches the chin of her cat Poussin, in the courtyard of her home at 179 East Seventy-First Street, New York City. Poussin was the model of many sketches and a few paintings by Sterne. Her husband, New Yorker illustrator Saul Steinberg, drew a portrait of Poussin inside the cabinet under their kitchen sink; the idea was to keep away mice.”

Gertrude Abercrombie holding some cats

Gertrude Abercrombie holding some cats. Image from Artful Cats  by Mary Savig, published by the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art, 2019. Courtesy of the publishers.

Gertrude Abercrombie holding some cats. Image from Artful Cats by Mary Savig, published by the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art, 2019. Courtesy of the publishers.

“Again and again, painter posed with her many cats, frequently holding up the feline like a prize.”

Berenice Abbott holding a cat

Berenice Abbott holding a cat. Image from Artful Cats  by Mary Savig, published by the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art, 2019. Courtesy of the publishers.

Berenice Abbott holding a cat. Image from Artful Cats by Mary Savig, published by the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art, 2019. Courtesy of the publishers.

took unforgettable photographs of New York City with her wide-format camera in the 1920s and ’30s. As she shaped how countless people saw the modernizing urban landscape, she also redefined gender roles. Abbott unapologetically wore ski pants rather than skirts and lived with her life partner, art critic Elizabeth McCausland, and their cats for decades. Here, we see Abbott on the other side of the camera. Fellow photographer captured Abbott posing with a furry feline in Maine.”

Gathering at the Breuer I House

Gathering at the Breuer I House. Image from Artful Cats  by Mary Savig, published by the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art, 2019. Courtesy of the publishers.

Gathering at the Breuer I House. Image from Artful Cats by Mary Savig, published by the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art, 2019. Courtesy of the publishers.

“In 1947 prolific architect (1902–1981) designed his first home, known as Breuer I, in New Canaan, Connecticut. In this photograph, a group of Breuer’s friends gather in the living room around a playful kitten. Most of the guests are seated on the woven floor matting, while sculptor —who lived just an hour north in Roxbury, Connecticut—leans against painted plywood shelves. Vibrant works of modern art, such as a mobile by Calder, punctuate the otherwise modest room.”

Frank Stella with Marisol

Frank Stella with Marisol. Image from Artful Cats  by Mary Savig, published by the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art, 2019. Courtesy of the publishers.

Frank Stella with Marisol. Image from Artful Cats by Mary Savig, published by the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art, 2019. Courtesy of the publishers.

(b. 1936) famously broke off from on a jagged line toward . The painter was motivated by the process of art, not the outcome. ‘I don’t just live for the day when I paint that one fantastic painting.…I live to paint and deal with the problems of what painting is and what it’s all about,’ explained Stella in a 1969 oral history interview for the Archives of American Art. Stella grappled with the problems of painting in his New York studio, where his docile feline Marisol carried on with the complexities of being a cat. In this photograph, they take a break from their work to enjoy each other’s company.”

Jay DeFeo’s cat Pooh Bear

Jay DeFeo’s cat Pooh Bear. Image from Artful Cats  by Mary Savig, published by the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art, 2019. Courtesy of the publishers.

Jay DeFeo’s cat Pooh Bear. Image from Artful Cats by Mary Savig, published by the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art, 2019. Courtesy of the publishers.

“Painter was a central figure in San Francisco’s Beat generation of artists, poets, and musicians in the 1950s and ’60s. She was known for her unorthodox use of materials that blurred distinctions between painting, collage, and sculpture. She also experimented with photography, often focusing her attention on her studio companion, a cat named Pooh Bear. Here, she documented the serious-looking feline absurdly posing on a box and in a box.”

Maria de Conceição (also known as Sao) in her studio

Maria de Conceição (also known as Sao) in her studio. Image from Artful Cats  by Mary Savig, published by the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art, 2019. Courtesy of the publishers.

Maria de Conceição (also known as Sao) in her studio. Image from Artful Cats by Mary Savig, published by the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art, 2019. Courtesy of the publishers.

“Textile and fashion designer Maria de Conceição (b. 1946) created a cozy studio for crafting her popular ‘wearable art’ garments. Surrounding de Conceição in her Washington, D.C., studio are spools of thread and piles of remnants for her artworks. Everything was at hand, including an amiable black cat.”

Beatrice Wood at her pottery wheel

Beatrice Wood at her pottery wheel. Image from  Artful Cats   by Mary Savig, published by the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art, 2019. Courtesy of the publishers.

Beatrice Wood at her pottery wheel. Image from Artful Cats by Mary Savig, published by the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art, 2019. Courtesy of the publishers.

(1893–1998) built a pink and blue home in the Ojai Valley of California around her pottery practice. In this photograph taken for the San Francisco Chronicle, Wood works at her wheel with one of her Manx cats looking on. At the time, Wood owned two Manxes named and Matisse. Across the room is a shelf displaying jars of ingredients for her signature luster glazes.”

Emily Barto at work on her mural Animal Tales

Emily Barto at work on her mural ANIMAL TALES. Image from Artful Cats by Mary Savig, published by the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art, 2019.

Emily Barto at work on her mural ANIMAL TALES. Image from Artful Cats by Mary Savig, published by the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art, 2019.

“As part of the New Deal’s , painter Emily Barto (1896–1968) received a mural commission for the Fordham Hospital in New York City. A tame tabby cat served as Barto’s model as she brought to life the nursery rhyme ‘There Was a Crooked Man’:
‘There was a crooked man, and he walked a crooked mile, / He found a crooked sixpence against a crooked stile; / He bought a crooked cat which caught a crooked mouse, / And they all lived together in a little crooked house.’”

Anne Arnold and Christy

Anne Arnold and Christy. Image from  Artful Cats  by Mary Savig, published by the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art, 2019.

Anne Arnold and Christy. Image from Artful Cats by Mary Savig, published by the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art, 2019.

“Sculptor (1925–2014) owned a house with a barn in Montville, Maine, where she raised farm animals such as pigs, cows, and chickens, and kept many dogs, cats, and rabbits. Her own collection of cats inspired an entire exhibition in 1969 devoted to the subject at the Fischbach Gallery in New York City. ‘What made the show so extraordinary was that their cat-ness was neither parodied nor exaggerated but presented straight, so that one had a sense of form completely filled with content,’ noted one critic in a review for Art News.”
Jacqui Palumbo is a Senior Editor at Artsy.

Excerpts from the book Artful Cats by Mary Savig. © 2019 Princeton Architectural Press.