Saturday, August 29, 2015

Chapter Six: Claude Monet

Black Cat In Monet's Garden

When Claude Monet moved to Giverny in 1883, he was 43 years old and a recent widower with two children. His life, once so difficult he attempted suicide, impoverished and unrecognized, was beginning to turn around as he painted what would later be recognized as masterpieces in the years following his wife Camille’s death at 32.

But if the first half of his life had been marked by sorrow and hard times, the next 43 years would witness the opposite. Monet’s most iconic and valuable art was inspired by the gardens he not only painted, but also designed in Normandy. 

Black Cat in Monet's Garden / © Deborah Julian
The first time I saw Claude Monet’s paintings, we were trying to take in as much of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City as we could consume in a single day. Discovered at the end of one second floor hallway, his giant canvases of lily ponds were the most beautiful art I’d ever seen.

Deep blues and greens offset with pinks and whites, pictures abstracted by Monet’s deliberate concentration on the quality of light in a single moment, they were immediately and simultaneously both real and unreal.

We went on to see art in as many of the great museums in the U. S. and Europe as we could make time for. We saw less known, local art in Seattle, emotionally charged paintings telling biblical stories in old churches in Rome, and modern art that rewarded you most when you worked at it in Washington and New York.

But in some ways, it is always in hope of repeating that Monet moment in New York. 

When it came time to merge a cat and Monet, Deborah picked the garden in Giverny as the most perfect place. She chose Billy because he’s the most obvious art lover among our cats.

We first noticed when Billy interrupted a nap on our antic hutch to stare at a Matisse print on the wall above it. He did it calmly as if appreciating something about it. He didn’t need a reason to enjoy something that wasn’t edible. 

And no, although we asked, Billy never made any effort to explain.

There was one other thing about Billy that made him perfect for the lily pond. He enjoyed looking at himself in the mirror as much as he enjoyed looking at Matisse. 

The experts will tell you, at least the majority will, that cats haven’t enough awareness of themselves as individuals to understand they are seeing reflections of themselves when they look into a mirror. Without wading into the science, I will say that, whatever Billy saw, he liked. 

When Billy wandered into Monet’s garden, making his way through tall grasses until he found a pink pond decorated with lily pads, it wasn’t water he wanted. As much as he loved drinking water, he loved gazing at himself as much, his image reflected back from the water in the way only Claude Monet could imagine. 

Monday, August 24, 2015

Chapter Five: Pablo Picasso

Pablo Picasso’s Cat Before a Mirror

You could have an interesting time and very likely get lost if you took a hike through the mind of Pablo Picasso. No guarantee the experience would be pleasant; in fact, you could probably take for granted that mostly it wouldn’t be.

Picasso was one of the most brilliantly creative artists who ever lived. From cubism to modernism, he was there at the creation of movements that might never have gotten off the ground without the infusion of his talents. 

Pick out any painting by Georges Braque, Picasso’s co-inventor of cubism. Look at it for a long time and try convincing yourself Braque’s style would have so shook the art world that painting was forever revolutionized. 

What the pair did was create images on canvas that showed viewers what an object looked like from multiple angles and dimensions, all coalesced on a flat surface. When they could just as easily have painted flowers in a pretty glass jar. 

Pablo Picasso was amazing for showing us the world in a way we would never otherwise conceive it, expanding our awareness of the world around us by lifting constrictions in space and time.

But for me, what really blew the lid off was when Picasso began slicing and dicing human psyches as if they were banjos and clown costumes. Not only did he aspire to give us a fuller picture on a single canvas, he did it with raw, honest insight into what makes each of us different from every other.

As a painter, he recreated our strengths and weaknesses, our pride and our fear, and so much more and got it all on one flat surface. Unlike expressionists who followed, Picasso’s pictures always looked like they might be about something recognizable.

In Girl Before a Mirror, he portrays Marie Therese Walter, his young lover, pondering her own
Cat Before a Mirror / © Deborah Julian
reflection. There are a million ways to interpret this painting, all of which might be right, but the one constant is that the mirror reflection isn’t much like the girl standing before it.

The Marie Therese that Picasso sees is soft and bright. The reflection she sees is dark, sad and even a little foreboding. To me, it looks like she, at least in this moment, sees an ugliness about herself that defies the reality that others see. An alternative interpretation is that she is projecting herself as aging in an unattractive way.

Cats know how beautiful they are and don’t get hung up on the vanity of it. Vanity implies doubt, right? Cats have no doubts. 

To complete Picasso's Cat Before a Mirror, Sam had to climb a stool to get a look at himself in the mirror. Even projected into cubism, he seems pleased with what he sees. Or he might be wondering who the beautiful cat behind the glass is. 

True to Picasso, he shows us himself from multiple angles, all at once.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Chapter Four: Vincent Van Gogh

Van Gogh and the Cats

An excerpt from Famous Artists Cats: The Book by David Stone and Deborah Julian

Not to suggest there weren’t any issues — with cats, there are always issues — but the few weeks Vincent Van Gogh shared with his cats in Arles may have been the most satisfying of his life.

The story of the painter and his cats is little known and seldom told. But the cats really liked Vincent as no one but his brother, Theo, ever did.

Van Gogh's Bedroom with Cats / © Deborah Julian
In 1888, sick and in danger of exceeding the limits of crazy acceptable for artists, Van Gogh packed up and left Paris for Arles. It is believed that he wanted to start a utopian art colony, but if that’s what he had in mind, why did he pressure Paul Gauguin to join him?

Van Gogh, described at the time as "dirty, badly dressed and disagreeable” by a shopkeepers daughter, clashed with almost everyone, and passionate Gauguin was imminently clash-ready.

If Van Gogh had stuck with his cats instead, he would not have had to fight to keep Gauguin’s friendship nor would he have cut off his ear and turned it over to their favorite brothel. But that’s wishful thinking, and to be honest, even with the cats, there were issues.

Local orphans, Georges, Sam and Guillaume adopted Van Gogh who was staying in a room that doubled as a gallery for his paintings. Not only did they love Vincent, with all the smells he brought home and dangling strings on his clothing, they gave him the easy companionship he seldom had anywhere else in his life. 

(In case his incredibly beautiful sunflowers created the wrong impression, you should know that even Van Gogh’s father was afraid of him and thought he should be committed to a sanatorium.) 

In Van Gogh’s Bedroom with Cats, you may not see the trouble right away. 

Van Gogh is the observer, returning from a long day of plein air painting and finding his cats happily asleep. Georges has curled pleasurably in the chair where Van Gogh usually sat to remove his shoes. 

Guillaume seems content, glancing up briefly from the only other chair to be sure the visitor is his beloved Van Gogh, and could any cat nap more pleasantly than Sam who has sprawled luxuriously across the painter’s bedspread?

Even as he wondered where he was supposed to sleep, Van Gogh noticed something else. The paintings on the wall above his bed were askew. 

Now, he understood. His cats, in his absence, no one around to dangle string or fetch cheese for them, had no choice but to bounce off the walls as they pursued each other in raucous play. 

Of course they’re exhausted, Van Gogh thought, stretching out on the floor, tucking his shoes under his head for a pillow. They had nothing to do but practice their hunting skills all day.

Wiped out himself, Van Gogh slept like an angel until just before dawn when Guillaume walked over to stand on him. Alerting the only member of the household with thumbs that breakfast was due was Guillaume’s responsibility. 

“You look tired,” Gauguin said, when he moved in a few weeks later.

His cats replaced by Gauguin, Van Gogh got to sleep in his bed again but never as peacefully.

You've been reading Famous Artists' Cats: The Book by David Stone and Deborah Julian. Want it? Click here to find out how.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Chapter Three: Edouard Vuillard

Messing Around in the Office (Edouard Vuillard)

Visual artists have a knack for inventing new words to put their work in context. It’s as if their creativity spills over into the regular world where you and I live.

Edouard Vuillard, for example, lived in a particularly ripe time that included impressionism, cubism, fauvism, expressionism and more. It’s an impressive list and an exciting time for any painter to be alive.

The Office Cat / © Deborah Julian
But Vuillard dove even deeper. Like Pierre Bonnard, who you will meet later in this book, he was one of Les Nabis. Les Nabis? Nabi means prophet in both Arabic and Hebrew. More forerunners than profits, les Nabis were post-impressionists — there’s another one — inspired by Paul Gauguin’s (Ready?) synthetism. 

None of that explains what got Sam involved, although Elmer Fudd might describe him as a very “synthetive cat.” What got Sam’s attention was the last in an exhausting list of categories with which Vuillard was associated.

Edouard Vuillard was an intimist. 

The intimists were known for painting the types of interiors you’d see if you were a fly on the wall or as invisible as cats sometimes are. Pierre Bonnard was also an intimist, but more light bulbs and the curtains opened, and if you visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, you will find his paintings sharing rooms comfortably with Vuillard’s. 

Vuillard’s dark, fuzzy scenes represent the business ongoing in the home of his mother, a dressmaker and widow with whom he lived until he was sixty when she died. They are psychological, reflections of not just his domestic situation but his feelings about it. 

Here again, this is not what interested Sam. What interested him, or rather what bugged his feline sensibilities, were the staid surroundings, so quiet, nothing going on. Few cats enjoy the pleasures of staid as, for example, a turtle might.

Fidgety one day, Sammy decided that Vuillard’s mother’s office was too much of a still life, the venue of a fuss budget. Bouncing up on a table inside the frame, he seized on a pile of mail carefully stacked alongside some fabric samples and paperwork.

It just felt right to begin evacuating the mail, paperwork and samples, one at a time. In The Office Cat, you see him pausing just long enough to look to the floor, appreciating his work in progress. 

Monday, August 17, 2015

Chapter Two - Roy Lichtenstein #1

Cat Art Parody of a Parody (Roy Lichtenstein #1)

Roy Fox Lichtenstein is one of the most interesting and peculiar artists of the 20th Century. He had a long career of innovative artwork but is best known for a short burst of comic book parodies that became wildly popular in the 1960s, with three decades remaining to be spent in his studio.

Roy Lichtenstein's Black Cat / © Deborah Julian
Lichtenstein drove some people crazy, much like Andy Warhol did, by painting pictures inspired by advertising and popular culture, parodies that were respectful takeoffs on a familiar medium. Others loved both artists’ work enough to make them rich and famous.

When Lichtenstein’s pioneering pop art paintings broke into the encrusted world of art in New York City, it was an odd event. His paintings, parodies of comic book pictures, were startling since they erupted out of a career previously devoted to cubism and expressionism.

He also had a keen, modernist’s eye for Sixties design and advertising.

Roy Lichtenstein’s Black Cat #1 is as much Billy’s opinion about pop art style as it is about cat art. Billy refuses to let the Ben-Day dots crawling up his side interfere with his chilling out on the painter’s very modernistic couch. 

Billy’s intense stare seems almost cynical. “Are you kidding me?” it says.

Or maybe it’s, “Why are you staring at me when I’m trying to take a nap?”

Lichtenstein went from pop art celebrity status to become one of the most exciting sculptors of his time. Borrowing from the splashy, basic colors of his paintings, his sculptures are fanciful abstract expressions that brighten public spaces around the world.

He also did parodies of classic paintings that updated the scenes in classic style. His Bedroom at Arles updates Van Gogh as a cartoon.

Some of his later work lets his sense of humor come through. Billy will take you into that a little later in the book.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Chapter One-Henri Matisse #1

Of Course He Is (Henri Matisse #1)

 When Henri Matisse painted La Danse (I) in 1909, for all its fame, it was only a compositional study for a more intensely colored final version to be completed the next year.

Against a simple, vivid background of blue and green, five ecstatic, naked — but not anatomically complete — female dancers whirl in a circle. Primitive in spirit, it’s often associated with Igor Stravinsky’s Dance of the Young Girls from The Rite of Spring, a ballet completed a few years later.

Can George be blamed for believing the dancers are excited about him, not just nature? He’d never been to the ballet or any pagan ritual.

Cat is Center of the Universe / © Deborah Julian
Out for a stroll one May afternoon in the wild, open fields of imagination, George stopped sniffing, and occasionally tasting, the grass, his attention stolen away by women without clothes moving to the flowing music of wind instruments.

Before he knew it, they were dancing around him. The world around them reduced itself to green grass and blue sky. In a perfect moment of joy, George became the center of the universe. 

I picked Cat is Center of the Universe to be first in this book of famous artists’ cats parodies because it hues so closely to the theme. 

Henri Matisse is recognized as one the greatest visual artists of the modern era. At home, he loved his cats, Minouche and Coussi. He posed for photographs with them, but there is nothing in the record that says their love for him had anything to do with art.

In Travels with George: Paris, George and Billy walk through the Louvre, unable to figure out people’s passion for paintings that don’t move and are not graced with interesting smells. Minouche and Coussi probably felt the same way.

Cat lovers joke that they are their pets’ servants. Cats, on the other hand, take it seriously.

In Cat is Center of the Universe, George demonstrates his preeminence, drifting off into dreamland while Matisse’s naked dancers spin by like galaxies and star clusters. 

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Introducing Famous Artists' Cats Book of Art

All About the Famous Artists' Cats Book of Art

I could start writing about Famous Artists’ Cats almost anywhere. The art is timeless, and the cats? They don’t care as long they have something interesting to keep their lightning quick minds stimulated. 

Billy & George Explore
As you and I look at the often funny, sometimes beautiful pictures Deborah Julian dreams up when she puts cats and famous artists together and tells them to mix it up, we are going to jump around in time. We will abandon all ideas about order, as I believe cats do all the time, and follow their example in sticking with what feels most interesting in the moment.

Every cat I know hates boredom. Great art avoids it or fails to be great. They are meant for each other.

Even so, I have no choice but to begin somewhere. For this introduction, I’ll start at the beginning. Makes sense, doesn’t it?

Of course I know that cats often make no sense at all as far as anyone can tell, a trait shared with a lot of art. But no cats, as far as I know, will be flipping the pages of this book. We humans are stuck with our storytelling heritage. I will ask, however, that if you meet any of our cats, you keep this topic out of the discussion.


Deborah Julian’s love for cats swelled into fascination with her first adoption, George, a rescue cat she carried home from the Humane Society on East 59th Street in Manhattan. We took the Roosevelt Island Tram over to volunteer as dog walkers on Saturdays. Our community on Roosevelt Island, a short hop halfway across the East River, banned dogs as part of its earliest development plans, spurred into such bad judgment by the pooper scooper wars that then raged in the city.

The “city of tomorrow,” as Roosevelt Island was expected to become, would not be littered with canine residue on every block. All that changed, but not in time to save our home from being ruled by cats.

We got our canine fix by leashing up the eager dogs housed at the Humane Society and taking them strolling around the neighborhood. Saddened at returning them to their cages, we soon got an itch to adopt an animal with whom we could share our home. 

A pair of longhaired dachshunds were almost enough to get us to break our lease, but a cat was our more sensible choice, and through his antic behavior, George made sure Deborah picked him. 

Whenever my wife wandered into his line of vision, George began whipping around the litter in his cage like he had committed his life to digging through to China. Fast. Then, once he had her attention, he looked her in the eye as if to say, “You’re here for me. Let’s go.”

George was a natural clown, and he was perfect for us.

Deborah’s love for art came first, although George soon made the competition fierce. It was inevitable, I guess, that they would merge.

But George was not her first model. While she knocked herself out with study and term papers,
Prepared to Help
working on her second degree, this time in art history, Deborah treasured his companionship.
While she pounded away on her word processor, her new best friend fought off sleep on the desk beside the clattering machine, once passing out with a shocking thump in spite of himself. 

Sometimes, he napped voluntarily, using the nearby telephone as a pillow.

But when it came time to create something that later evolved into her Famous Artists’ Cats series, George wasn’t considered. After all, he was already busy as an art history assistant. 

The original idea was simple enough. Our niece, a dancer, had a birthday coming up. Deborah decided to do something different, create a ballet-inspired birthday card, and include our niece’s recently adopted cat as a model. 

Punky is a golden tiger cat, making him an exciting match for Edgar Degas’s beautiful pastels of dancers in Paris. 

Deborah gave Punky a ribbon to play with and escorted him to the studio where Degas’s ballerinas were stretching on an exercise bar. Ballet Class Visitor grew to be one of her most popular works, but a few years passed before she realized the possibilities.

Put more clearly, it wasn’t until George had been joined by a second cat, Billy, that a bigger idea was forced on her.

Working on street photography, developing, cutting, matting, etc., she balanced her concentration between her projects and George and Billy’s desire to get involved, to “help out.”

Cats minds crave stimulation. Interaction with the world around them is as irresistible as it is for a child. Although many artists — Matisse, Picasso, Klimt, Klee and others — have openly loved cats and invited them into their studios, the interactions aren’t always seamless. Cats’ priorities conflict with the artists’. 

Cats, for example, will relax happily on any printed paper, including the photographic variety, laid flat in their realm.

One day, Deborah threw up her hands and wondered out loud, “What would famous artists do, if they had my cats?” 

It started out rhetorical but soon grew lively.