From time to time I like to write about cats in paintings. This is one by Lucian Freud which he completed between 1948 and 1949. The painting shows Kitty Garman (1926-2011) holding a cat. Freud was married to Kitty between 1948 and 1952. Freud therefore painted his wife who was the eldest daughter of the sculpture Jacob Epstein and his lover Kathleen Garman.
Kitty (the woman) is holding a kitty. The cat stares at Lucien Freud. The woman’s grip on the cat by the neck and chest is overly firm. The whites of her knuckles are showing. The firmness of the grip is one which would cause harm to the cat judging by its appearance. However, the young looking cat appears entirely unconcerned but a little sad as if to say, “Why”?
The woman’s hair is frizzed at the edges giving the impression that she is stressed or a bit mad even. This is supported by her empty gaze into the distance. She does not look settled and calm. She looks troubled and the cat she is holding as mentioned looks sad. The woman’s name (Kitty) is a word which is used to describe cats as well. Therefore there is a connection I would suggest between the cat and the woman. Perhaps they’re one and the same creature.
Some more pages on cats in paintings (there are many more, please search):
- Édouard Manet loved cats and many of his letters have small sketches of cats
- Gorgeous watercolour and ink paintings dedicated to the domestic cat by Endre Penovac
- Arthur Heyer Paintings of a Dog Mucki and an Angora Cat
Perhaps Freud is portraying the idea that his wife is strangling herself with her anxiety. Perhaps he is portraying the idea that she is harming herself psychologically or is tortured perhaps by her history. Her history does include some troubled times. Kitty was the daughter of Kathleen Garman who was shot by Epstein’s jealous wife Margaret because at the time Kathleen was in an unfair with Epstein. I don’t know, but this may have affected Kitty Garman mental state in adulthood.
I tried to research the meaning behind the painting but was unable to find anything solid to guide me. The thoughts are therefore mine except for the Tate Modern’s author on their website stating that the painting leaves unresolved questions about the woman’s self-image. Perhaps this could be expanded to mean self-esteem. Self-esteem issues are often connected with anxiety and depression (the cat’s sadness may be a reflection of this).
As to the technique employed in the painting, I’m told that the glassy style we see in the painting evolved into a style with which we are more familiar when in the 1950s Freud move towards a much freer painting technique.
P.S. Why did he call the painting “Girl with a Kitten” when he was painting an adult woman. Freud was a womaniser. Perhaps he regarded his wife as a girl rather than as an equal adult. Freud (8 December 1922 – 20 July 2011) made eight paintings of Kitty, his first wife.