About this artwork
Balthus’s legendary secretiveness has inhibited critical commentary on his paintings. His son Stanislas appears at times to have been his spokesman, arguing that the girls in his father’s paintings are “emblematic archetypes… their very youth the symbol of an ageless body of glory, as adolescence (from the Latin adolescere: to grow toward) aptly symbolizes that heavenward state of growth which Plato refers to in the Timaeus” (Klossowski de Rola 1983, p. 10). He also suggested, a little more plausibly, that the paintings emphasize the act of seeing, though unfortunately he used this as an excuse to propose that an ideal state can be achieved from their contemplation “wherein the act of seeing, the seen and the seer become one” (Klossowki de Rola 1983, p. 8). All the evidence of these senses appealed to in such paintings— nostalgia, lubricity, frustration— work against such a reading.
Most literature on this painting considers alternative identifications of the cat, with either Balthus’s model, Therese Blanchard, the daughter of a neighbor, or with the artist himself. The latter interpretation is supported by Balthus’s long-standing fascination with cats. In 1920, at the age of thirteen, he published a series of prints narrating the story of a cat called Mitsou; even more directly relevant to the artist’s personal identification with this animal is his 1935 self-portrait entitled H.M. the King of Cats (New York 1984, no. 9, ill.). In addition in the work of writers in Balthus’s circle, there is considerable support for the association of the cat with sexuality. Georges Bataille’s erotic novel Histoire de l’oeil (Paris, 1928), for instance, has a chapter entitled “L’Oeil de chat” (The Cat’s eye) in which a sixteen-year-old boy and girl engage in sexual play with a cat’s saucer of milk. However, an exclusive emphasis on these readings overstresses the biographical in Balthus’s work and overlooks the degree to which he refers to and plays upon traditions of representing sexuality in Western painting.
The genre of salacious images of women with which Balthus’s Girl with Cat is aligned traditionally include a small animal: cat or lap dog. The most famous examples perhaps are Jean Antoine Watteau’s Lady at Her Toilette of 1716/17 (London, Wallace Collection) and Edouard Manet’s Olympia of 1865 (Paris, Musee d’ Orsay), but any number of thinly veiled Venuses or clothed beauties in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century painting carry, fondle, or are watched by a pet. Typical commentaries of the time would remark on how fortunate the pet was to enjoy such privileged proximity to the desired object. Unspoken, but often visually very obvious parallels were also made between the creature and the female body. Traditionally the animal thus has a double identity, related to both the artist/ voyeur and the female sex.
The setting of Girl with Cat has many of the traditional trappings of the painter’s studio. Therese lies on a daybed that figures in several other paintings by Balthus; on the left, the back of an upholstered chair is barely recognizable because of the rococo swatch of blue fabric bunched around one of its arms (similar chairs appear in Balthus’s paintings The White Skirt of 1937 and Therese of 1938).
— Entry, Dawn Ades, Surrealist Art: The Lindy and Edwin Bergman Collection at the Art Institute of Chicago, 1997, p. 6-7.
- Girl with Cat
- Oil on board
- Signed and dated, l.l.: "Balthus 1937"
- 34 1/2 × 30 1/2 in. (87.6 × 77.5 cm)
- Lindy and Edwin Bergman Collection
- © Balthus