As works by artists from Balthus to Théophile Steinlen reveal, the cat has long been a popular subject for depiction. One Marianne C. Gourary, a German immigrant who lived in Manhattan for most of her life, was an avid collector of cat art, amassing hundreds of artworks — including some by the aforementioned artists. She and her husband Paul were both Fellows of the Morgan Library and frequently participated in programs at the Metropolitan Museum, the Cooper-Hewitt, and the Grolier Club, according to a 1992 interview conducted by American Book Collectors of Children’s Literature. She passed away last year at the age of 93, and her feline-focused treasury is going to auction this Thursday at Bloomsbury Auctions in London.
As a Bloomsbury representative told Hyperallergic, Gourary simply “loved cats, hence her large collection of cat art and books.” Her obituary in the New York Times also noted this affinity for the furballs, describing that she “had a strong affection for cats and especially appreciated their company during the later years of her life.” (She owned just one, however, a white cat named Muffy.) The sale, according to Fine Books & Collections, is one of the largest of its kind to occur in the UK, featuring 244 works — and the trove is really delightful, bringing to public eye many rare and original illustrations that depict cats in a variety of ways, from straightforward portraits to bizarre or humorous caricatures.
Book illustrations vastly dominate the selection, comprised of images from fairy tales, poetry collections, and chapbooks. Included, for example, is Mabel Humphrey’s celebrated “The Book of the Cat” from 1903, featuring pictures by Elizabeth Bonsall, who also illustrated “The Pied Piper of Hamelin.” Gourary also owned a 19th-century edition of Walter Crane’s “Puss in Boots” that is accompanied by brightly colored renderings of a black cat and a contemporaneous copy of Edward Lear’s “The Owl and the Pussy Cat and Other Nonsense Songs,” which features delicate illustrates of the famous animal pair by William Foster.
Other highlights include pictures from cat-themed prose by writers such as Ted Hughes, T.S. Eliot, Charles Baudelaire, and French art critic Champfleury, who wrote a series of essays on cats titled Les Chats in 1869. His book contained portrayals of cats by renowned artists of the time, including Manet and Delacroix.
One of the rarest lots available is also one of the saddest: Balthus’s “Mitsou” is an illustrated tale that features 40 black-and-white plates; completed by the painter at the age of 12, it chronicles his experience with a stray tomcat that disappeared after living with him for a while. Other works by artists famous for their cat renderings include a lithograph by Théophile Steinlen — which features a feline resembling the one in his “La tournée du Chat Noir de Rodolphe Salis” — and, of course, a number of plates by Gottfried Mind, whom Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun labeled “the Raphael of Cats.” The collection also includes some unexpected creations by well-known artists, such as a posthumously printed 1946 drypoint of siamese cats by the landscape-loving Camille Pissarro.
While Gourary mainly collected Western art, she also acquired a selection of works from Japan. One notable example is Natsume Sōseki’s “I Am a Cat” an early-20th-century satirical novel that parodies Japanese society during the Meiji Period. Accompanied by black-and-red illustrations, the narrative is told through the eyes of a domestic cat, portrayed on the volume’s cover as a wide-eyed animal. There’s also a woodblock print of somewhat creepy cats with red pupils by the contemporary printmaker Iwao Akiyama and a regal portrait by the Tokyo-born Léonard Tsuguharu Foujita — sort of the Balthus of Japan, as he was known for his renderings of beautiful women and cats.
Cat art often fills the walls of galleries, museums, and beyond: the art world often embraces it, especially in 2013; this year alone welcomed a massive cat-themed show in Los Angeles, another woodcut-focused one at New York’s Japan Society, and a browser plug-in featuring cat art from the Metropolitan Museum of Art that we all immediately installed. Gourary’s collection, however, now shared, introduces a vast number of rarely seen works — and pending the auction’s results, perhaps some will one day be on permanent display for all to see.
Cats: The Collection of the late Marianne C.Gourary goes to auction on Thursday, October 29, 2015 at Bloomsbury London (Bloomsbury House, 24 Maddox Street, London, W1S 1PP).