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Michèle Sacquin is the curator at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. She also likes cats.

This is a set of drawings, engravings, and illustrations depicting cats, from the library's collections. There's also text, which talks about the role of the cat in culture and literature and its importance to painters and writers and its association with children sometimes and women sometimes and sex sometimes, but honestly we have all seen that sort of thing before repeatedly; what makes this book, the reason I sat down with it after flipping through it, is the images.

Victor Hugo's doodles of cats down the side of the manuscript of Les Misérables. A portrait of Huysmans, staring at you round-eyed, black cat around his neck like a scarf as it bats at the white marble statue of the Virgin on the mantel. An ukiyo-e print of a sleeping courtesan whose kimono has been disarranged by a stretching cat, which had evidently been curled up in an area that suggests the Japanese have some of the same puns English does (and indeed the text confirms that). An inexpressibly lovely Berthe Morisot drypoint sketch of her daughter, Julie Manet, with kitten, which Renoir would later paint but not as well. A page from the manuscript sketches for a twelfth-century physiology book, tangles of the human body in several positions, studies of various insects and plants in neat clear outline, and at the bottom one carefully limned cat in one of those improbable washing-oneself knotworks. A Mughal lady trailing the end of her scarf for a cat that looks more like a lion to pounce on.

There's just about every sort of art on paper here but paintings. Sacquin doesn't think people paint cats very well.

She does reasonably with the historical notes, too. I was fascinated by the brief account of the siege of Arras (the one of which Cyrano de Bergerac was a veteran)-- the Spanish put on the city gate 'When the Spanish surrender the town of Arras, rats will defeat and capture cats', and after the French took the city, they changed it slightly, so that it read 'When the Spanish defend the town of Arras...'. And sure enough there is a finely wrought copperplate engraving, made by a Frenchman, showing the dashingly dressed and well-combed rats relieving a rather effete-looking army of Spaniard cats of their swords. It is definitely the first time I have seen patriotic propaganda in which a country depicted themselves as an army of rats. I really can't imagine that that's happened very often.

The book is not terribly well-organized (honestly it is not perceptibly organized at all), I would have liked even more detail about the provenance of some of the drawings than was provided, and the attempts at analysis of the cat in literature do not go beyond the 'people like to write about cats sometimes for some reason' level. But if you want a really adorable and unusual art book full of pictures one can't find on the internet (I've been trying to find some to link to, and no), this will give you a fascinating half-hour.


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March 2017

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