Cats and Henri Matisse’s Goldfish

When Cats Discover Matisse Goldfish


The most popular chapter in Famous Artists’ Cats: The Book is Henri Matisse Goldfish (with Cats). Hardly a day goes by when one or more pinners don’t click the heart button and repin it on one their own boards.

Inspired by Matisse’s Interior with Goldfish (Les poissons rouges), it’s intense blue is accented only a little by the goldfish, which are, as you can see, actually red.

Matisse loved painting red goldfish. He did it often. Sometimes, they were the main focus of the picture. In others, like Interior with Goldfish, they accent a more general setting. With Matisse, it’s a special place of honor to accent blue.

By the way, even if you don’t know the least bit of French, you might have noticed that Les poissons rouges doesn’t appear to have any “interior” in its original title. The full, English translation title is a concession that distinguishes this 1914 painting from a 1912 painting with, otherwise, exactly the same title. Matisse liked painting red goldfish so much, he ran out of titles for them.

For the record, some articles add the word “bowl” to this painting, but that seems unnecessary. This isn’t a nature painting. Where else would the fish hang out?

The interior is from Matisse’s quarters in Paris. He had a view in the heart of the city for which the rent must now exceed human comprehension. That’s the Seine flowing a lesser blue in the Parisian background. You can also see drays a t work crossing a bridge.

When Deborah opened the window to let Billy and Sam into Matisse’s studio, she added the enticement of extra fish.

(There is nothing on record to tell us Matisse’s reaction at finding two extra adult red goldfish in his bowl.)

True to the nature of black cats, Billy studies the goldfish bowl intensely. Sam, unable to control himself with the same rigor, climbs onto nearby furniture for a closer look.

Sam’s magnified face, a giant furry explosion, seems not to disturb the fish at all. They seem to be aware that glass and water are impregnable barriers, even for cats.


Chapter Eleven: Edgar Degas (#2)

While We’re at It, More Edgar Degas

Edgar Degas is probably the least loved of the impressionists whose revolution he helped lead. Based solely on his art, he should be one of the most admired, a pioneer whose work frames a part of art history not likely to be forgotten.

But his contentious nature, his strident anti-Semitism and the misogyny some claim to see in his paintings of women have made him an unpopular figure in contemporary art circles.

I think we should consider the art alone, without the personal shortcomings or overt mistakes. Mozart was, after all, also anti-Semitic, Caravaggio a murderer, Van Gogh almost entirely unlikeable in person and Beethoven a slob of proportions as outsized as his Ninth Symphony

A Cat in Degas’s Hat Shop / © Deborah Julian
Maybe it’s the contrast with the other, gentle impressionists that makes his faults stand out. 
But we can forget them.

“His paintings portray the growth of the bourgeoisie, the emergence of a service economy and the widespread entrance of women into the workplace,” according to, quite a different enterprise than that of his contemporaries.

The honestly of his portrayals got him in trouble with a society that preferred to keep the more mundane sides of life out of the pictures. 

Among his subjects were laundresses and shopkeepers, plain and simple, recorded with honest, evocative detail. Among his most famous paintings of bourgeois life in Paris is The Millinery Shop. A stylish woman is trying on hats when, in Deborah’s version, Sam intrudes on the Nineteenth Century to attach an irresistible sash

Chapter 10: Edgar Degas #1

To the Contrary, Edgar Degas

The thing about Edgar Degas is that, except for his art, he did just about everything wrong. Even when not wrong, he was difficult and contrary. 

Even his one time friend and colleague while breaking down the traditional barriers in art, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, said, “What a creature he was, that Degas! All his friends had to leave him; I was one of the last to go, but even I couldn’t stay till the end.”

The painter whose penetrating views into middle class life in Paris gives us lasting intimate views was the ultimate outsider. “The artist must live alone,” he said, “and his private life must remain unknown.” Creator of the most sensual nudes, gracefully beguiling dancers, Degas never married. 

His family name, by the way, was De Gas, not Degas, but he considered it too highfalutin. 

Ballet Class Visitor / © Deborah Julian
You wouldn’t know it by the breakthrough art for which Degas is best known today, but his original intention was to be a history painter, following a conservative path like his hero, Ingres. Unlike his fellow avant grade artists, his pictures were accepted at the traditional art salons in Paris from the start. 

But when he was forty, he decided he didn’t like Salon culture anymore and abruptly cast his lot with the avant-garde of Monet and others who were derisively called impressionists because the evanescent nature of their work set them apart from the more solidly based, formal artists. 

This did not mean he like impressionism, however. He hated the term and wanted to be called “a realist,” instead. He even mocked their commitment to plein air painting. 

Just to be a little more contrary, he took a leading role in organizing the Impressionist Exhibitions, from 1874 to 1886, showing his work in all but one of eight. Yet he fought with the group incessantly over who should be included. His insistence that non-impressionists be included caused so much rancor, the group eventually broke up. 

That, however, was not the end of his alienating fellow artists. 

But first, he put his attention to creating some of the most memorable artwork of his time. It started with his subjects, the average people living in the shops, bars and streets of Paris, people considered uninteresting by conservatives as well as the avant-garde impressionists who preferred landscapes and pretty characters.

Edgar Degas experimented radically with color, but for me anyway, what makes his art stand out is its original slant on its subjects. His primary characters often were not centered in the picture. 
Important objects partially disappeared off the edge of his canvas. A committed realist, Degas painted the world more in the way we ideally see it, unposed, not poetically balanced.
For the last twenty years of his life, Degas was without friends, finally wandering around, nearly blind. The Dreyfus Affair in the 1890s accelerated the alienation as his staunch anti-Semitism became more pronounced, but that might be too narrow. It seems Degas disliked almost everything. He was said to have fired a model after learning she might be Protestant. 

He also hated social reform and technological innovation, like the then daring telephone. Yet, his art was so unforgettably out front. 

In respect for the pastels Degas contributed in recording the story of ballet dancers at work, before the public and behind the scenes, Deborah’s first contribution using his art uses a gentle image of ballerinas stretching at the bar while a perfectly color-coordinated cat stands by with a ribbon, hoping someone will come play.

Chapter Nine: Paul Cézanne

The Cats in Paul Cézanne’s Apple Basket

One way to look at Paul Cézanne’s career is to consider it as what happens when one of the most brilliant visually creative minds gets to work without worrying about money. 

Cézanne’s father was a wealthy banker and, except for a kerfuffle or two about Paul’s choices of career and wife, provided him with a lifetime of financial security. While he could easily have laid back as a spoiled rich kid, Paul followed his genius into becoming what many consider the most influential visual artist of the Nineteen Century. 

Yes, that includes Monet and the impressionists whose work Cézanne tried hard to bend in a more substantial direction.

“We all stem from Pissarro,” Cézanne declared, referring to the explosion of modern art during his lifetime. Unfortunately, many fewer people know who Camille Pissarro was, but you can’t be an art lover without having heard of Paul Cézanne.


In spite of Cézanne’s love for Pissarro, both Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse claimed that, in fact, Cézanne “is the father of us all.”

His early Man in a Blue Cap, painted with a palette knife, may be the first example of expressionism, which revolutionized art in the Twentieth Century, but more important, his paintings made after 1895, inspired by a visit to the Bibémus Quarries, are considered the seeds of Cubism. His intense studies of Montagne Sainte-Victoire are the examples you’re most likely to see now in a museum.

Cézanne’s Cats / © Deborah Julian
His influence is everywhere. He exhibited with the first wave of impressionists who, frustrated at being rejected by the Parisian establishment, set up their own alternative exhibitions, but he was never comfortable with the evanescent quality Monet valued in his on art. He wanted to create works more substantial, like the paintings that he saw hanging in the Louvre, by inserting something more lasting in the shimmering lights of impressionism.

While Van Gogh could tear off a painting or two before lunch, for example, Cézanne spent around a hundred sittings for single still life.

By all modern accounts, he was spectacularly successful, although not in his lifetime. Although never as thoroughly rejected as Vincent Van Gogh, a painting from an early Cézanne solo show in Paris got this review from Louis Leroy: “This peculiar looking head, the color of an old boot might give [a pregnant woman] a shock and cause yellow fever in the fruit of her womb before its entry into the world.”

Art critics take note: nobody knows who Louis Leroy is anymore.

Near the end of Cézanne’s life, Henri Rochefort wrote an article about his paintings titled “Love for the Ugly.” The citizens of his hometown were so upset, they began leaving copies of the magazine in which it was published on his doorstep, along with notes asking him to leave. He was disgracing them.

Through it all, Cézanne seems to have kept his eye on the work, a Steve Jobs of his day, intent on making better, more progressive creations throughout his life, regardless of the approval of others of lesser sensibilities. 

So determined was he that he literally died from his art. The day after collapsing in a field while continuing to paint in a two hour downpour, he started work again, only to faint. The model he was working on called for help, but after being carrying him into bed, he never got up again. He was 67 years old. 

Among Paul Cézanne’s most treasured paintings are his still lifes, more intense and complete throughout the canvases. Cats love them, but only when they are still working models.
Guillaume discovered The Apple Basket first, on a day when Cézanne left the studio to paint outdoors. He jumped up on the table where the model had been set up and acted as lookout while Georges and Sam were drawn to the inspection by the rich smells and colors of the fruit.

Look at the result here. They fit, don’t they?

Chapter Eight: Rene Magritte

Why You Can(’t) See Rene Magritte’s Cat

Walking into a room of Rene Magritte’s paintings is like entering a workout gymnasium for your brain. Nothing expected happens with Rene Magritte, even when you expect the unexpected.

One of his most famous paintings is of a simple pipe against a plain background. Beneath the image is an inscription: Ceci n’est pas une pipe. Translated: This is not a pipe. And, of course, it’s not. It’s a picture of a pipe.

The Invisible Cat / © Deborah Julian
Other surrealist and impressionist artists may make you think. Magritte forces you to. Or you can just leave the room.

But why leave when the art is so easy to enjoy? Many of his paintings are beautiful, like La cuerda sensible (The Chord), where a cumulous cloud rests atop a giant glass that dominates a semi-arid plain. Others, like the baffling La condicion humana (The Human Condition), poetically challenge your perception of reality.

In almost every instance, no matter how challenging, Magritte creates a painting so pleasing to look at, you are willing to go the next step and think about it.

Think about it you will, too, and you will probably still think about it after you’ve left the gallery and are trying to concentrate on something else. Magritte finds his way into your subconscious, because that’s where the real conversation takes place.

As the most playful of surrealists, Magritte digs beneath the surfaces that you believe in to set your imagination running in the absurd world behind it. Often, it’s a world of dreams or one of doubts stuffed back from conscious awareness. He believes in a world of masks in which things are greater than they appear to be. Fears, wishes and everyday assumptions prop it up.

One of the most startling facts about The Invisible World, which Magritte painted in 1954, is that, less than ten years earlier, the artist supported himself by painting fake Picassos. In the post World War II period, he also raked in cash by printing fake bank notes with his brother, Paul. You can see where invisibility might be an advantage.

In Le monde invisible, Magritte again plays with words. An invisible world couldn’t really be painted, could it? Or is he suggesting something else, something more hidden and sinister than invisible? It’s Rene Magritte, so who knows?

In the background, an endless sea has indefinite contours while a storm gathers above. The foreground is less predictable. A chiseled boulder casts a deep shadow across a formal-looking room in front of a window to the sea. The image is solid and indefinite simultaneously, changing and certain — much like most of our dreams.

People sharing their lives with cats eventually become award of their feline companions exceptional abilities for teleportation and intermittent invisibility. Those gifts set up the perfect model for The Invisible Cat. 

Sam pops into view in Magritte’s painting, completely invisible, just like the rest of the world.

Chapter Seven: Pierre Bonnard #1

Grooming Lesson (Pierre Bonnard)

(Excerpt from Famous Artists Cats: The Book by Deborah Julian & David Stone)
I’ve been a Pierre Bonnard fan from the day I first saw his paintings. For me, many of his pictures are as beautiful as anything Monet did, as original as Picasso and as playful as Matisse.

Of course, Claude Monet is an artist so many more people know and admire. One reason, probably the most important one, is that Monet was a daring pioneer. He, Renoir and Pissarro sacrificed greatly to pursue their visions of what became known, derisively at first, as impressionism.

They are remembered because they revolutionized painting in France and went on to create masterpieces admired around the world.

Pierre Bonnard, on the other hand, was a post-impressionist, a Nabi, like Vuillard, who expanded the borders without causing a war with the establishment, which had already been pushed back by Monet and his cohort. 

Unlike Monet, Bonnard seems never to have suffered many personal setbacks or heartbreaks. A calm, cultured and happy family life made it easier for him to create without hunger pains or personal tragedy. 

Bonnard Bather with Cat / © Deborah Julian
The result is a sixty year history of paintings that are mellow, original, extremely colorful and complex in a way Monet achieved only after finding happiness in the second half of his life. Apart from a brief fling at lawyering, under pressure from his father, Bonnard seems to have been a lifelong, happy painter. 

Among his most beloved paintings are nudes inspired by his wife Marthe’s baths. There are so many, you might thinks she did little else but soak in the tub or prepare to. Maybe because so many of his pictures started out as photographs, there is an immediate naturalism about them, a casualness, even while posing naked. 

For her first cat art inspired by Pierre Bonnard, Deborah selected a painting more quirky than the others. Quirkiness fits well with cats, doesn’t it?

In Bonnard’s picture, Bathers, Marthe is already underwater. You recognize her from her very familiar, shapely legs, which are about all you get since the tub is shoved off to the side. A second bather, still wearing a robe and slippers approaches from the left. 

George decides to give them both a lesson in grooming, settling in the center of the canvas, for a thorough clean up.