Sunday, January 26, 2014

Dressing a Kitten, c. 1770

Sunday, January 26, 2014
Isabella reporting,

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.


Anonymous said...

it is a LOLCATS sort of picture and that is how I would have interpreted. I don't see any abuse in it but then I, and my children, have dressed cats and dogs in our time.
Thank you for this. It isn't the sort of picture one usually is show in art history.
BTW, I would be surprised if there were any concerns about animal cruelty in the 18th century. It seems hard to think that any one would be concerned about a couple of girls dressing a kitten that might have otherwise been drowned or left to go feral when their fathers and brothers were probably at a bull or bear baiting.

Sarah said...

I hate seeing cats dressed for amusement, it is cruelty [I have one cat who feels the cold who is glad of a jacket, but it's specially designed for her and she fetches it when she's chilly...] I doubt the thought of animal cruelty was considered deeply but the allegorical aspect is certainly interesting. They are objectifying the male, though in a feminist critique one might dryly say fair's fair as women were very much objectified [and still are]. Kitty even so has probably been lucky to have a reprieve from a watery death, and a little loss of dignity may well be worth it... one wonders if that might be taken in allegory too if the loss of dignity of crawling to a well dowered wife for an impoverished gentleman even for the clothes on his back might also be worth it...

Sarah said...

I wonder who the older girl is turning to look at?

Undine said...

Put me in the camp who sees this as creepy. There's something downright sinister about those two girls. I think they must be the sisters of Damien in "The Omen."

Luckily, that cat looks like he's planning a gruesome revenge.

Betty said...

The kitten appears to be a calico, which is a female kitten. I think too much is being read into the tail between the legs. That's what kittens do.

Anonymous said...

I hate seeing animals played with as if they are toys instead of living creatures captive and subjected to unwanted, uncomfortable, and often carelessly cruel attentions. I really don't like when parents acquire animals for their children as if they are toys and don't teach them respect and empathy for them ( these are the ones that are often discarded like used Kleenex if the family moves, has another baby, or if the animal gets old and sick ; or it means the dog, no longer a puppy is isolated and neglected and a prisoner on a chain in the back yard).

I find this picture creepy.

Philip Wilkinson said...

I shouldn't be surprised if there's a moral lurking behind it - there could even be a hint of a proverb sometimes associated with Dutch cat paintings: 'Whoever plays with a little cat will be scratched'.

Peter Sale said...

I wonder if the girl on the right facing is Mary Ann Denby (daughter of the organist at Derby Cathedral), who married Thomas Sale. She is the left facing lady in the “Orrery” looking to the right. I say lady, she was no more than a young teenager at the time, dressed up like children like to do, to look older. I will have to check the date of the painting with my family tree. – Joseph Wright was so clever at giving the illusion of light in his paintings.

Lucy said...

Betty is right: if the kitten is a calico, which it appears to be, it is female--there are no male calicos.

As to the rest of the picture--the kitten is being seriously annoyed, but not harmed, and it doesn't appear that harm is intended. I doubt it rates a place, historically, in Hogarth's Stages of Cruelty.

The tailor's apprentice might have caused more harm if the cat he dressed had gotten stuck in the wall and been unable to come out. Mercifully, such was not the case.

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