Fair use felines: The enduring legacy of cats as art

Fair use felines: The enduring legacy of cats as art

Cats, with their steely expressions and balletic extensions, have long posed in front of artists for their likenesses to be captured. Whether lounging in a sun-bathed spot or tucked into rigid clothing, felines have appeared in images across centuries, some of which have been culled together by the Library of Congress as part of their “Free to Use and Reuse” collection.

Using the series as a pouncing off point, we’ve gathered some of our favorite images and backstories.

Edward Penfield’s Cats

"Edward Penfield, his book." Made by Edward Penfield between 1990 and 1925. Photo: Library of Congress.
“Edward Penfield, his book.” Made by Edward Penfield between 1990 and 1925. Photo: Library of Congress.

Though not the only cat to appear in a work by the prolific poster artist Edward Penfield, this elegant cat peering over a book marks a personal entry into the designer’s catalogue of felines. Penfield, whose posters have been dubbed the “definitive graphic works of the 1890s,” carved the image to print a bookplate for his own use. Measuring in at about 3 x 3 inches, the woodcut print was created sometime between 1900 and 1925.

Eadweard Muybridge’s Galloping Felines

"Twenty-four consecutive images of a cat running," by Eadweard Muybridge. Created June 13, 1887. Photo: Library of Congress.
“Twenty-four consecutive images of a cat running,” by Eadweard Muybridge. Created June 13, 1887. Photo: Library of Congress.

Meet the original cat video. Taken by pioneering photographer Eadweard Muybridge on June 13, 1887, these 24 individual frames portray a cat in various stages of a sprint. When animated together, the sequential images coalesce into a smooth representation of the cat in motion. The series fits into Muybridge’s collection “Animal Locomotion,” which also contained the photographer’s famous study of a horse galloping — definitively proving that all four hooves leave the ground at some point.

Three White Kittens by Currier & Ives

"The Three White Kittens: Peace," by Currier & Ives. Made between 1879 and 1907. Photo: The Library of Congress.
“The Three White Kittens: Peace,” by Currier & Ives. Made between 1879 and 1907. Photo: The Library of Congress.

This hand-colored lithograph from the 19th-century print-makers Currier & Ives, purveyors of (at the time) “cheap and popular” pictures, may be titled “The Three White Kittens: Peace,” but the image seems to say otherwise. The trio of young cats wear faces of disdain, with the cat furthest to the right scowling toward its comrade on the left. The middle cat, adorned with a red necklace bearing a cross, cleans the angry cat, perhaps as a soothing method. Images of “three white kitties” appear elsewhere in the work of Currier & Ives and provide a loose narrative of the cats accomplishing life events, such as catching their first mouse.

The Unlikely Friendship of Timmie and Caruso

Timmie the cat and Caruso the Canary. Photo: Library of Congress.
Timmie the cat and Caruso the Canary. Photo: Library of Congress.

The cat and the canary in this photo were actually friends. The cat, named Timmie, belonged to Bascom N. Timmons, a journalist and president of the National Press Club. The canary perched on the docile feline’s back was a pet of President Calvin Coolidge and went by the name Caruso. Timmie and his bird companion Caruso became so attached that Coolidge gave Timmons, who had served as his advisor, the canary so that the animal duo could remain together.

Victorian Cats Posed by Harry Whittier Frees

This photograph by Harry Whittier Frees shows four kittens wearing clothes and dining al fresco.
This photograph by Harry Whittier Frees shows four kittens wearing clothes and dining al fresco.

Photographer Harry Whittier Frees created popular images of small animals, typically kittens and puppies, dressed in miniature clothes and posed in whimsical scenes. Frees’s career, which spanned 50 years, garnered the portrait artist an enamored following, but the photographer’s practices and methods for keeping the animals still have drawn scrutiny over the years.

Want more? Enjoy the following selections from the Library of Congress.

"The Cat — Felis Domesticus." Photo: The Library of Congress.
“The Cat — Felis Domesticus.” Photo: The Library of Congress.
Edna B. Doughty and Louise Grogan with Persian cats. Photo: The Library of Congress.
Edna B. Doughty and Louise Grogan with Persian cats. Photo: The Library of Congress.
Aviator John Molsant and his cat. Photo: Library of Congress.
Aviator John Molsant and his cat. Photo: Library of Congress.
Study of a cat, possibly named Buzzer. Photo taken by Arnold Genthe. Courtesy: Library of Congress.
Study of a cat, possibly named Buzzer. Photo taken by Arnold Genthe. Courtesy: Library of Congress.
"Evolution of a Cat-cher," by H.S. Crocker & Co. Photo: Library of Congress.
“Evolution of a Cat-cher,” by H.S. Crocker & Co. Photo: Library of Congress.

Top Image: Photograph by Harry Whittier Frees. Courtesy: The Library of Congress.