Purring nobility

''What beautiful studies! Such firmness! Such mastery!'' - Eugene Delacroix confided his early admiration for Gericault to his diary at the end of 1823. Gericault was one of the formative influences on the young Romantic painter. Acquaintances rather than close friends, the two artists had nevertheless worked together studying the menagerie animals in the Jardin des Plantes, Paris, about 1817. It was about this time that Gericault must have painted his sprawling cat. Both artists tended to look for the tiger in cats. A sheet of cat drawings by Gericault displays his usual interest in the ferocious, teeth-baring side of the creature which only needs enlargement and a wild setting for it virtually to be its untamed cousin.

The ''Sprawling Cat'' is, however, rather different. It is, in fact, an example of the rare occurrence in serious art of a purely domestic feline. As Kenneth Clark has pointed out, the dog, among household animals, predominates in Western Art. The appeal of the cat is surprisingly little; Hogarth's tortoise-shell, yellow-eyed cat in his portrait of ''The Graham Children'' is an exception, perhaps, though even this ''pet'' is displaying its less amiable side by a sudden, clawing appearance over the back of a chair to alarm a caged goldfinch. Hogarth's is a cat appreciated with humorous (and accurate) observation, rather than tenderness. The gentle, cosy nature of cats, their potential for friendliness (albeit of a generally ''independent'' nature), their supreme and endearing capacity for doing absolutely nothing for hours on end in a warm spot, their intensive, businesslike ''toilette'': even the Egyptians, who were very fond of domestic cats, seem not to have noticed in their art the animals' soft and tame characteristics.

Only one thing in Gericault's painting seems to me ambiguous, and that is the ''expression'' on the cat's face. Those Oriental eyes, and that Lewis Carroll smile: what, if anything, do they signify? They could mean unplumbed deeps of contentment, the visible evidence of a semiconscious purring. They could mean ''DO NOT DISTURB'' and ''let-sleeping-cats-lie.'' Or they could indicate a certain slyness lurking round the edges of self-importance, a tinge of warning to The Mouse - wherever and whenever. Perhaps, though, the artist has simply caught the enigma of feline dreams in a half-alert sleep, dreams that doubtless have hidden meanings buried, like indecipherable hieroglyphs, in the desert sands of long ages.

Gericault's cat might almost be carved or modelled rather than painted. It demonstrates the classical, sculptural quality of his style (he actually did make a small number of sculptures at this time) and shows his awareness of the animal bronzes made by his comtemporary, Antoine Barye. It's a sleek rather than a fluffy cat, and its form has been described by the painter as if it were a lazy landscape: tail, legs, haunches, back all powerful and weighty and dormant. Or it is like still life, Gericault was, in fact, a master of painting figures, human as well as animal, as if they were immobile objects in a still life. Limbs can be beautifully formed, smooth as marble, like this cat's, but oddly quiescent and inert. Efficient and knowing, his way of painting even a cat contains an inherent appreciation for the great Renaissance sculptor and painter , Michelangelo. In that Old Master's hands, figures seem to be frequently in the process of waking from heavy sleep, struggling against the lifeless stone out of which he chisels them. Applicable to Gericault is Michelangelo's statement that ''painting is to be considered the better the more it approaches relief. . . .'' Both artists were striving to re-create in the terms of their own day the qualities they perceived in antique (Greek and Roman) sculptures and reliefs - the nobility, wholeness, and the boldly realized proportions of figures. To invest a tabby with such admirable, sculptured nobility, however, was a complete novelty.

Klaus Berger has written that this work ''shows nothing comparable to the standard method of its period; only in early Cezannes do we find similar tendencies.'' Be that as it may, Gericault's unquestionable originality has made the cat (which, by its very classicality, is ''all cats'') impossible to dismiss as insignificant. The cat is a worthy subject for high art.

He painted it as if he had stroked it, feeling the structure under the fur: as if he knew the sensation that the cat must feel as it neatly and patiently cleans itself all over with long, controlled strokes of its sand-paper tongue.

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