To celebrate International Women’s Day, I want to highlight some of the works in the Caticons collection created by women. With so many talented female artists to choose from, I decided to pay homage to the following three women who were not only incredibly talented artistically, but were also good business women, able to support themselves and their families through their art while often shouldering domestic responsibilities as well. These amazing artists were truly Modern women, living in pre-Modern times.
“A Boy Holding a Cat,” After Judith Leyster (Haarlem 1609-1660 Heemstede, The Netherlands),17C?, oil on canvas, 30 3/8 x 24 1/2 inches.
One of the first works that comes to mind is Judith Leyster’s “A Boy holding a Cat” found on page 219 in Caticons. Judith Leyster (1609-1660) was the first woman to become a master-painter in the 17th Century, and one of the earliest females to earn her living as an artist. Leyster’s paintings of life’s simple joys were prototypes for later genre painters.
“A Boy Holding Cat” is taken from one of Leyster’s compositions in which she created a visual pun on a popular Dutch phrase. In 17th Century Holland, “children getting into mischief” was called “kattekwaad” (“cat devilment”). The artist illustrates this play on words with the mischievous-looking child and apprehensive cat in “A Boy Holding Cat.” The upward glance of the boy, one of Leyster’s trademark devices, can also be seen in this painting.
“Mischief,” Lilly Martin Spencer (Exeter, England 1822-1902 New York City), 1867, oil on board, 11 x 8 1/2 inches.
Lilly Martin Spencer (1822-1902) was well-known during her lifetime for genre scenes featuring happy families which were widely distributed through engravings of her work. Born in England, she immigrated to America with her French parents when she was eight. Socially progressive, Spencer’s parents believed in education for women and women’s rights.
The mother of 13 children, she often based her domestic scenes on her own family, home and pets (see “Mischief” on page 188 in Caticons). An exception in 19th-Century America, Spencer painted to support her family, while her husband not only handled household responsibilities and took care of their children, but also acted as her business agent and made frames for her paintings.
Her work was popular in both America and Europe. Her paintings shown at the 1852 American Art-Union earned more money than those of John James Audubon. She also painted portraits on commission. Her famous sitters included First Lady Caroline Harrison and suffragist and social activist Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
“Portrait of a Cat”, Henriëtte Ronner-Knip (Amsterdam 1821-1909 Ixelles, Belgium), late-19C/early-20C, oil on panel, 14-7/8 x 18-1/8 inches.
Internationally renowned as the “Queen of Cat Painters,” Henriëtte Ronner-Knip (1821-1909) included many of Europe’s royal families among her patrons such as the King of Portugal, the Emperor of Germany, the Duchess of Edinburgh, and the Princess of Wales. As one of her first royal commissions, she painted portraits of the Queen of Belgium’s two favorite dogs.
Learning to paint from her father, she took over the family finances when he became blind. Later, she painted to support her ailing husband. Eventually, her works were to receive world-wide recognition and earned the support of wealthy patrons throughout Europe, and for the last thirty years of her life, she was able to dedicate her time solely to the painting and drawing cats, (some of which can be seen on pages 100, 135, 183, 238, 240, 243, 260, 269, 275, 276 and 279 in Caticons.)