In painting, cats are depicted in every possible way: rolled up in a basket, playing with a ball of wool, frolicking or climbing in the curtains. These fluffy and curious, but also stubborn critters provide domesticity and excitement. Not only in living rooms, but also on paintings. A professional woman with unprecedented artistic qualities, Henriette Ronner-Knip, was able to depict the life of cats on canvas like no other.
For a long time, only the learning path through family was open to women with artistic talent. This was no different for Henriette and she learned the trade from her father, Josephus Augustus Knip, who often painted livestock and landscapes. In her father’s studio, emphasis was placed on the elaboration of details, balanced compositions and a balance between light and dark areas. Unlike her father, Henriette was primarily interested in small pets and she painted many dogs early in her career. Hunting dogs and draft dogs in particular caught her attention. She began painting cats around 1870, a subject she is still known for today. She flawlessly found the sometimes calm, sometimes playful or inquisitive nature of cats and managed to convey the texture of their fur, eyes and colours.
With the cat as subject, the painter responded to the taste of the emerging rich bourgeoisie who bought art. In domestic life, the cat had become a popular pet, increasing the demand for her paintings. In addition, the emerging interest in cat paintings was probably fueled by one of the first cat exhibitions to be held at London’s Crystal Palace in 1871. Henriette was even commissioned by the British nobility to immortalize their aristocratic cats on canvas. She painted the animals as delicate creatures that take over the rich lives of their owners. She harmoniously depicts the cats playing, sleeping and crawling on and over the precious furniture and luxurious fabrics that were so popular with the rich bourgeoisie. That this woman’s talent was seen and appreciated by contemporaries can be seen from an English review in the Illustrated London News in 1893: ‘The artists who have succeeded in rendering the cat may be counted on the fingers of one hand – the Japanese Hokusai, the Swiss Mind, the English Burbank, the French Lambert, and the Dutch Mme. Ronner – and the greatest of these, the one who has succeeded absolutely and all around, is the last, the lady. ”
She had a special and unique way of working to create the anecdotal scenes. Henriette started by sketching a still life about the chalk or charcoal study. Such a still life often consisted of an interior with richly equipped furniture, various types of textile and special objects such as games, globes or musical instruments. The painter then placed the mischievous companion animals in this performance. In the garden behind her house was the “foyer des artistes”, where borrowed cats always stayed. For her paintings, use was made of a special cat furniture, a kind of glass cabinet, in which she could observe both the animals she wanted to sketch at rest and the young kittens that would otherwise shoot in all directions.