Black Cats in Art

two-black-cats-michael-creese

Feature image: Michael Creese, Two Black Cats via Fine Art America

The Veils of Superstition - a look into black cats in art

Civilizations have treated cats as royalty since ancient history and never seemed to forget it. Their representations in art and culture illustrated them as symbols of power and protection. However, not all cultures approached black cats with the same enthusiasm. Shrouded in a swirl of superstition, black cats became the staple example of bad omens throughout Medieval Europe. From ancient archetypes to contemporary culture, black cats have held esteemed presences in the minds of humanity throughout history.

Representations of black cats in different cultures throughout time

The idea that black cats are bad luck is a superstition that developed in Europe during the Middle Ages, and it's not associated with ancient Egyptian beliefs about cats. The ancient Egyptians believed cats had protective qualities and could bring good fortune to their households because of their loyalty to the goddess Bastet. Bastet was initially depicted as a lioness-headed goddess, symbolizing her fierce and protective qualities. She was revered as a warrior and protector of Lower Egypt and was the goddess of fertility and childbirth. However, over time, her image evolved, and she came to be depicted with the head of a domestic cat, further reinforcing the image of felines to be considered godlike. The ancient Egyptians believed harming or killing a cat was a serious offense and could lead to severe punishment or even execution.

Black cat representation in Ancient Egyptian artwork via Getty Images
Black cat representation in Ancient Egyptian artwork. Credit line: Getty Images via History Extra

Records of black cats existed in ancient Greece, but they did not hold as much significance in their mythology as they did in Egypt. Hera, the wife of Zeus, transformed servants into black cats for trying to impede the birth of Hercules. While the notion of cats being mischievous hadn’t yet existed, this could be the foundation for the chaotic and mischievous cat stereotype. Much of their mystical generalizations came from their sleek fur, commonly depicted as a sentient shadow portending a bad omen, symbolic of the mysterious night. This was not always the case, though, as Victorian-era England believed that a black cat would summon potential suitors.

Common Characteristics of the Depictions

Depictions of black cats in art tend to have arched backs, with spiked-up hair—on high alert with questionable intentions, perhaps feeling threatened or startled. It is common amongst artists to paint black cats like this in a Halloween-themed context. In addition, they are commonly depicted underneath a full moon. They almost always have their yellow eyes accentuated because in medieval times and even in the Salem witch trials, the eyes of black cats were equated with staring into the eyes of the devil himself.
 

One place where the black cat stereotype was turned into a more positive representation was tarot card art. Artists incorporate black cats into the decks based on the card type. Black cats in tarot cards are often associated with mystery and intuition. In a tarot reading, a black cat might symbolize the need to trust one’s intuition when making decisions. Tarot artists might depict cats representing intuition by posing them, sitting, and staring forward to illustrate a more intuitive presence. In addition, they could also be interpreted as a reminder for a person to practice independence. Generally, cats are known for being individualistic. A black cat in a tarot card could represent a need for self-reliance or the importance of maintaining personal boundaries.

Procession of Black Cats 13th centuryProcession of Black Cats 13th century via William Morris Tile
Procession of Black Cats 13th centuryProcession of Black Cats 13th century via William Morris Tile
Abbeville cat reading a book, 15th century
Abbeville cat reading a book, 15th century via William Morris Tile

One of the most famous depictions of black cats in artwork comes from them simply sitting on or near the moon, emphasizing their association with the night and superstitions surrounding them. One famous artwork aligning with this style is "Le Chat Noir," French for "The Black Cat.” Its original form was not a painting but a poster created by French artist Théophile Steinlen in the late 19th century. The poster features a black cat in a stretching or lounging pose and promotes the cabaret nightclub named "Le Chat Noir," a famous and influential entertainment venue in Paris. This image of the black cat has become a symbol of the cabaret. It is still widely recognized and reproduced, making it one of the most iconic and recognizable posters from the Belle Époque era in France. 

Alex Colville, Black Cat, 1996
Alex Colville, Black Cat, 1996, Owens Art Gallery, Mount Allison University, Sackville via Alex Colville Life & Work by Ray Cronin

Black Cats in Literature

This reference to black cats as a symbol of evil omens and the subconscious is manifested within Edgar Allan Poe’s poetry, where his haunting “The Black Cat” becomes associated with bad omens while alluding to traditional feline characteristics. The Cheshire Cat in Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” is another example of this occurring in literature long after Poe’s work was published.

 

Since black cats maintained their reputations surrounding dark magic, they also began appearing as symbols of tormented guilt in literature. Poe’s poem The Black Cat tells a tale of pet affection, abuse, and eventual murder. The poem opens with the narrator’s love and affection for his black cat, only to transition into abusing and attempting to murder it after it bit him. The narrator spirals into an increasingly drunken state, developing a hatred of black cats and attempting to murder them on sight. When the narrator’s wife tries to stop him, he murders her instead and hides the body. However, the police find the body when a black cat cries out near it.

Edgar Allan Poe
Edgar Allan Poe's "The Black Cat" book cover variants via Amazon
Edgar Allan Poe
Edgar Allan Poe's "The Black Cat" book cover variants via Amazon

Edgar Allan Poe owned a black cat, and he named it with the linguistic elegance of a poet—Catterina. Contrary to superstitious beliefs at the time, this feline was adored by all, as responses to the piece gushed about the character of his cat as much as the quality of the poem, saying he is "the owner of one of the most remarkable black cats in the world—and this is saying much; for it will be remembered that black cats are all of them, witches."

 

The allure to black cats did not stop with Poe’s haunting tale; the Cheshire Cat in Lewis Caroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” epitomizes features of black cats that make people feel uneasy. Lewis Caroll’s Cheshire Cat was based on the British Shorthair. However, even this cat breed can take on a sleek, dark coat and deep, unforgiving eyes. If you’re looking for a cat to make you experience an uncanny valley, this is the one. Those flat orange eyes could stare into your soul so deep that it induces a fight or flight response. My heebies are jeebied enough, thank you.

Miné Okubo, painting of a cat (1972). Courtesy of the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. via artnet
Miné Okubo, painting of a cat (1972). Courtesy of the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. via artnet

While different cultures interpreted black cats differently throughout history, the notion that black cats are associated with bad omens and demonic activity permeated so deeply in superstitions that it was immortalized within artistic representations of them. The superstitions they carried continued to inspire artists like Edgar Allen Poe and Lewis Carroll. Yet, their representations, both in art and popular culture, do not always reflect their mystical cliches. The superstitions still exist, but they are prevalent as more of a running joke in a piece, a satirical stereotype alluding to centuries of fear-mongering over our feline friends.


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