The Cat Among The Stars signed 'JACK B/YEATS' (lower left), further inscribed 'THE CAT/AMONG THE STARS' (verso) oil on board 23 x 36 cm. (9 x 14 in.) Painted in 1939
PROVENANCE: With The Waddington Galleries, London, where purchased by Mr and Mrs F. Hess, London Thence by descent
EXHIBITED: Dublin, Royal Hibernian Academy, 1940 Waterford, Newtown School, 6th Annual Exhibition of Modern Irish Art, March 1942 Cork, 1943
LITERATURE: Hilary Pyle, Jack B. Yeats, A Catalogue Raisonné of the Oil Paintings, Andre Deutsch, Vol.I, cat.no.509, p.468
Jack B. Yeats exhibited The Cat Amongst the Stars at the 1940 RHA exhibition in Dublin alongside such major works as High Water Spring Tide and A Morning Long Ago. Compared to the epic themes and grand scale of these paintings, The Cat Amongst the Stars appears to deal with an ostensibly inconsequential subject a cat reclining amongst a display of film magazines. But the simplicity of the image belies the more intriguing nature of its subject matter.
Yeats was all too aware of the impact of modernity, and especially such manifestations of it as cinema, on contemporary life. His play Harlequin's Positions, performed at the Peacock Theatre in Dublin in 1939, centred on the proposed opening of a picture house in a rural Irish town. As an ardent admirer of live theatre Yeats had an ambivalent attitude towards cinema which according to John Purser, is sometimes represented as a social blight in his writings (John W. Purser, The Literary Works of Jack B. Yeats, Colin Smythe Ltd., Gerrards Cross, 1991, p.78). Film is referred to in several cartoons which Yeats made for Punch as well as in his other plays and novels. In his 1938 novel, The Charmed Life, Yeats refers to the impact of film on the lives and imaginations of several of the characters. He writes of one, the Judge, 'who tramps from cinema palace to cinema palace it keeps him fit in body. And the stories he sees before him on the screen are nails driving nails out, so, though they tire him, because the excitement plays on the cords of his heart, they do not clumber his heavy load' (Jack B. Yeats, The Charmed Life, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 1974 ed., p.51).
Hollywood had a profound if indirect impact on life in Ireland, an influence not curtailed by the draconian censorship of film in the Free State. It symbolised a fantasy world of escape and of possibilities, a central theme in Yeats's artistic imagination. Its influence was particularly important for women as a marker of fashion, independence and alternative life models. Yeats always recognised the connection between femininity and modernity especially in his paintings of Dublin in the 1920s and 1930s. In this painting a large black cat settles itself across a selection of popular Hollywood fan magazines. These provided cinema goers with news and gossip concerning the stars of the screen and fed the insatiable public curiosity into their seemingly outrageous lifestyles. The most notable actresses of the day included Greta Garbo, Bette Davis and Carole Lombard and the features of the latter two may possibly be discerned in the covers of Movie Mirror and Film in the foreground of the painting. Their unreal glamour is offset by the comparative worldliness of the cat, although it too has a distinctly seductive quality. Yeats loved animals and many of his early sketchbooks contain drawings of the dog and cat which he and his wife Cottie kept in their first home in Devon.
The scene is undoubtedly based on something which Yeats noticed on his ramblings around Ireland and more probably in Dublin. His favourite haunts in the city included Greene's Bookshop and the stalls of books and magazines on the quays. These provided him with amusing images of the interaction between modernity and the more traditional aspects of city life. Two important works, Jazz Babies, (1929, Private Collection) and Gentlemen prefer Books, (1950, Private Collection) focus on the presence of young fashionable women in such locations. In The Cat Amongst the Stars these figures are distilled into the feminine symbols of cat and movie star, both powerful indicators of leisure and display. The cut-off composition and the lively handling of paint add to the modernity of the subject. They give a sense of the passing moment and convey to the viewer the fleeting glimpse of the cat amongst the movie stars. The dark solidity of the animal's body contrasts with the flatter, less defined forms of the magazines. The almost sculptural structure of the cat is created out of a rich array of brushstrokes of dark blues and greys. Ultimately Yeats's love of cats is to the fore in this work. The alert expression on the animal's face coupled with the nestling pose of its body as its settles down on the comfortable surface of the magazines easily outshines the stars of Hollywood.
We are grateful to Dr Roisin Kennedy for compiling this catalogue entry.