Treasures from the Vault: Julius “Cats” Adam

Katy Thompson, Children’s Education Associate

A painting of an adult cat with five kittens.
Julius Adam, German, 1852-1913. Cat with Kittens. Oil on canvas, late 19th century. Gift of Theodore F. Thieme, 1948.06. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

German artist Julius “Cats” Adam is internationally recognized for his paintings of…take a guess…cats! Cats participating in a myriad of cat activities, both inside and outside, like playing with yarn, sleeping, drinking milk, hunting, grooming, and interacting with people (mostly children) and other animals are the focus of Adam’s paintings after 1882. Before transitioning to an animalier, or an artist who specializes in the realistic portrayal of animals, he practiced landscape painting. Born into a family of artists, his first official introduction to the art world was as a teenager, working in his father’s photography studio in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil retouching photographic images. He eventually moved back to Germany, however, to study at the Academy of Fine Art in Munich. Purchased predominantly by the middle class, Adam’s paintings, watercolors, and lithographs of cats and kittens were well-received. This begs the question: why cats?

Many artists, both literary and visual, have (and continue to) keep cats as companions, including Julius Adam. His self-portrait (below) includes a few of his furry friends that made him famous. (His expression is recognizable by all of us who have worked from home with our animals this year, as we can see he sits with palette and paintbrush in hand). Admired for his ability to capture their personality and movements, in Cat with Kittens we see a realistic portrayal of an adult cat (mom?) with their brood of five kittens. Animals express their mood via their body language, and the adult cat in Adam’s painting, with the tail hooked-downward, suggests a defensive posture. Standing protectively with ears perked and back paws bent, they are capable of pouncing but arrested in action. The kitten on the top left also looks to the side of the canvas, as if distracted by a noise. The other kittens are grouped around the larger cat, with only one kitten facing the viewer. The central kitten looks up at the larger cat, meowing earnestly and bathed in a light source not present in the composition itself. Three of the cats share the coloring of their parent, while the other two are much darker, which is typical for cats. Assembled in broken, possibly discarded, baskets of hay, the rest of the composition is dark as shadows emanate from the trees or bushes and the lush, green grass. The cats themselves are fluffy and sleek, making me want to reach out to feel their fur. The scene, with such detail, suggests the use of models; however, animals don’t stay still in the same way people or objects can be posed. Even if not working from a specific scene, it is obvious that Adam spent time around cats.

Julius Adam, German, 1852-1913. Entre-Nous (Self Portrait with Cats). Oil on canvas. Public Domain.

Well trained and educated, it may seem counterintuitive for Adam to paint domesticated cats when, historically, the art world has favored portraiture and landscapes. Could we consider this a portrait of a cat family? John James Audubon was an ornithologist in the 1800s who painted the birds and mammals of America. In a realistic style similar to Adam, Audubon depicted the animals in their natural habitats interacting with each other and practicing natural behaviors. Looking at an Audubon work, the colorations of the animals feathers or fur, whether they lived in communities or solo, what they lived in, and what they ate are all evident. Was Adam doing something similar, melding art with science (Yay STEAM!) to document the characteristics of the domestic house cat? More than likely not. People love cats, and paintings like this generate an AWWWW reaction that makes people open their pocketbooks and purchase. Perhaps taking a note from his uncle, who painted horses, Adam realized that there was a market for cat paintings and went with it!

Now in our museum, it may seem odd that a (mostly) American art museum collected a German work produced for mass consumption. Many of the Hoosier Impressionists, however, studied in Germany, imbuing the German style and influence into their own work. Though they may not have interacted directly with Cats Adam, his painting provides a visual example of that style. If we look at a work by William Forsyth, J. Ottis Adams, or Otto Stark, can we see Adam’s influence?

A garden landscape with multiple flowers and a fence in the background.
J. Ottis Adams, American, 1851-1927. The Hermitage. Oil on canvas, 1901. Gift of Theodore F. Thieme, 1922.26. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Freed from the Vault for a limited time only, in celebration of FWMoA’s 100th Birthday, come see Cat with Kittens in person in A Century of Making Meaning, on display through April 11, 2021.

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