My recent blog post about the 18th c. tailor's apprentice dressing his master's cat reminded me of this painting. Two Girls Dressing a Kitten by Candlelight was painted by Joseph Wright of Derby (1737-1797) between 1768-1770.
While Wright painted many portraits (I've written blog posts featuring two of them here and here), he's best remembered for his masterful use of chiaroscuro, an effect that emphasises bold contrast between light and dark. Wright employed candlelight to illuminate figures and heighten the drama in paintings like The Orrery, giving the then-new and exciting science of the Enlightenment the same importance as an Old Master subject drawn from ancient Rome.
Here Wright uses his skill on a more humble subject. Two young girls have discarded their doll for the more interesting challenge of dressing a kitten. The girls are clearly enjoying themselves; the kitten, not so much. The subject seems straight out of LOLcats and other internet sites, where there are cats a-plenty in sombreros, princess crowns, and tutus.
But 18th c. viewers might have looked at the picture a bit differently. Most likely it would have been considered a "fancy picture," a popular genre of the time that incorporated a storyline into a seemingly every-day scene. The girls and their game might have been viewed as a cautionary illustration against animal abuse, that first step towards a lifetime of cruelty towards others. The stark lighting gives the scene an air of secrecy and the forbidden, as if the girls had been told not to do this and yet persisted in their game.
The fact that the kitten is probably a male (that nervous kitten-tail is a little too suggestively phallic to be accidental) and that the girls are pretty and on the edge of adolescence only increases the moral lecture: today they torment a male kitten, and tomorrow they'll do the same to an unsuspecting man. Some scholars also point to how Wright painted this picture when he was in his thirties, an asthmatic bachelor who suffered from bouts of depression, and wonder if the cruelty of the girls reflected his own romantic trials.
So what do you think? Do you see a "cute" picture, or one that's a moral warning or even a little creepy?
Above: Two Girls Dressing a Kitten by Candlelight, by Joseph Wright of Derby, c. 1768-1770. English Heritage, Kenwood.
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.