I knew that my post on dogs in art would trigger a feline response…..

Spend any time on the internet and you could be forgiven for thinking everyone likes cats and they always have. Leonardo de Vinci declared “the smallest feline is a masterpiece”. Jean Cocteau described cats as the visible soul of one’s home.

"Libraries are so broadening", by Deidre Hunt. Cover image Dine Impessions of the Cat
“Libraries are so broadening”, by Deidre Hunt. Cover image – Dine Impessions of the Cat. Wodonga, Vic: 1990

Well, nearly everyone. This post is from the celebrated 18th century blogger and naturalist, Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon.

THE cat is an unfaithful domestic, and kept only from the necessity we find of opposing him to other domestics still more incommodious and which cannot be hunted; for we value not those people, who, being fond of all brutes, foolishly keep cats for their amusement. Though these animals, when young, are frolicsome and beautiful, they possess, at the same time, an innate malice, and perverse disposition, which increase as they grow up, and which education learns them to conceal, but not subdue. From determined robbers, the best education can only convert them into flattering thieves; for they have the same address, subtlety and desire for plunder.

Cats in ukiyo-e. Tokyo: 2012
Cats in ukiyo-e. Tokyo: 2012

They easily assume the habits of society, but never acquire its manners; for they have only the appearance of attachment or friendship. This disengenuity of character is betrayed by the obliquity of their movements, and the duplicity of their eyes. They never look their best benefactor in the face; but, either from distrust or falseness, they approach him by windings, in order to procure caresses, in which they have no other pleasure than what arises from flattering those who bestow them.

The form and temperament of the cat’s body perfectly accord with his temper and dispositions. He is jolly, nimble, dexterous, cleanly, and voluptuous. He loves ease, and chooses the softest and warmest situations for repose.

Medieval cats. London: 2011
Medieval cats. London: 2011

Young cats are gay, vivacious, and frolicsome, and, if nothing was to be apprehended from their claws, would afford excellent amusement for children. But their toying, although always light and agreeable, is never altogether innocent, and is soon converted into habitual malice. As their talents can only be exerted with advantage against small animals, they lie in wait, with great patience and perseverance, to seize birds, mice and rats, and without instruction, become more expert hunters than the best trained dogs.

Cats on quilts. New York: 2000

Cats on quilts. New York: 2000

They have a natural antipathy to water, cold and bad smells. They are fond of basking in the sun and of lying in warm places. They are also fond of perfumes, and willingly allow themselves to be taken and caressed by persons who carry aromatic substances. They are so delighted with valerian root that it seems to throw them into a transport of pleasure.

Cats in the Louvre. Paris: 2007
Cats in the Louvre. Paris: 2007

Cats eat slowly, and with difficulty: their teeth are so short and ill placed, that they can tear, but not grind their food. Hence they always prefer the most tender victuals, as fishes, which they devour either raw or boiled. They drink frequently; their sleep is light; and they often assume the appearance of sleeping, when they are only meditating mischief.

Curious cats in the National Gallery of Victoria. Melbourn: 2012
Curious cats in the National Gallery of Victoria. Melbourne: 2012

Cats walk softly, without making any noise. As their hair in always clean and dry, it is easily electrified, and the sparks become visible when it is rubbed across with the hand in the dark. Their eyes also sparkle in the dark like diamonds, and seem to throw out, in the night, the light they imbibe during the day.

The Cat in art. New York: 2007
The Cat in art. New York: 2007

Though cats live in our houses, they are not entirely domestic. Even the tamest cats are not under the smallest subjection, but may rather be said to enjoy perfect liberty; for they act to please themselves only; and it is impossible to retain them a moment after they choose to go off. Besides, most cats are half wild. As the cat may be considered only half domestic; he forms the shade between domestic and wild animals.

Cats, wild and domestic, from Buffon's Natural History, V.4, London:1812
Cats, wild and domestic, from “Buffon’s Natural History”, V.4, London:1812

Translated, with notes and observations by William Smellie, member of the Antiquarian and Royal Societies of Edinburgh. Adapted and edited for the State Library of Victoria by Dominique Dunstan, Arts Collection  Librarian, member of the National Gallery of Victoria and Melbourne Zoological Gardens



This article has 1 comment

  1. An elegant blog, representing the regal nature of the cat. Thank you Dominique.

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