- Museum number
The Virgin and Christ Child with a cat
Pen and brown ink, over stylus underdrawing
Verso: The same subject in reverse
Pen and brown ink, brown wash, over stylus underdrawing
- Production date
- 1478-1481 (c.)
Height: 130 millimetres
Width: 94 millimetres
- Curator's comments
- This is one of six drawings by Leonardo showing the Virgin and the Infant Christ who holds, or plays with, a cat. Three of these drawings are in the BM (Popham and Pouncey 1950, nos. 98, 99); and the remaining ones are in a private collection, New York, reproduced in colour as no. 18 on p. 291 in the 2003 Metropolitan Leonardo catalogue; the Uffizi and the Musée Bonnat, Bayonne: Popham 1950, nos. 8B, 10 and 14). The choice of animal is an unconventional one because, aside from the legend that a cat had given birth at the same time as Christ was born, it has no symbolic links with Christ's Passion, unlike the lamb or the goldfinch more normally associated with representations of the Virgin and Child, (indeed cats were often thought to be linked with the devil as in Lotto's 'Annunciation' painting in the Pinacoteca Communale, Recanati).
Leonardo's strikingly naturalistic depiction of the interaction between the child and the animal in the drawings is no less innovative than the subject matter. This is exemplified in the present work by the superbly observed detail of the cat's desperate attempts to escape Christ's smothering embrace. This double-sided drawing includes the most resolved version of the composition and is therefore likely to be one of the latest. Like one other in the group it shows the figures tightly enclosed within an arched space. Compositional parallels with the Leonardo's painting, the 'Benois Madonna' (St Petersburg, Hermitage) probably painted in the late 1470s, are particularly evident in the study on the recto (described as the verso in the 1950 catalogue) with the inclusion of a window behind the figures as in that picture. On stylistic grounds these studies can be dated a little later, to the early 1480s, the period when Leonardo was working on the 'Adoration of the Magi' for the church of S. Donato a Scopeto in Florence (this unfinished work is in the Uffizi, Florence). In common with the majority of Leonardo's compositional innovations, the studies of the Virgin and Child with a cat were developed no further than the drawing stage, but were nevertheless a significant step in Leonardo's radical rethinking of the theme that led to paintings such as the 'Madonna of the Yarnwinder' (a work designed but largely not executed by him) and the Louvre 'St Anne with the Virgin and Child', in which the Infant Christ's manhandling of the lamb is reminiscent of his counterpart's treatment of the cat in some of the drawings. Leonardo's drawings of the subject seem to have been known by at least one of his Milanese followers as a radiograph shows that the lamb held by the Christ Child in a Leonardo school painting in the Brera, Milan was originally a cat, see the illustration in the Metropolitan Leonardo catalogue, 2003, p. 292. Leonardo also continued to explore the theme on paper, perhaps most memorably in the magnificent cartoon in the National Gallery, London.
In the present drawing Leonardo began by loosely sketching the figures in an arched frame; first with a stylus then in pen-and-ink. (For Leonardo's practice of drawing frames in his compositional drawings see M. Kemp, 'Drawing the Boundaries', in the Metropolitan Leonardo catalogue, 2003,New York, 2003, pp. 141-54). The composition is dominated by the strong diagonal established by the position of the protagonists' heads, and the clarity of the artist's intentions is reflected in the sureness of the outline and the characteristic left-handed shading in this portion of the drawing. The intelligibility of the upper half of the composition is in sharp contrast to the lower part, the artist's search for a satisfactory position of the Virgin's legs resulting in a maelstrom of penlines. Leonardo then turned the sheet of paper over and, by holding it to the light, selected the favoured outlines of the design that he had just drawn on the other side. The composition is not just reversed but also subtly altered to make it more balanced, the position of the Virgin's legs and the turn of her head to the right counterbalancing the leftward diagonal established by the orientation of Christ and the struggling cat in his arms. Although the design is more resolved on this side than the other, Leonardo continued to explore different ideas, as in the case of the three positions of the Virgin's head (the central one traced through from the recto), with the artist's preferred solutions made evident by a final touch of brown wash that clarifies the outlines and obscures, at least to some extent, the various alterations.
HC (revised version of entry in Raphael catalogue)
Lit.: G. Waagen, 'Treasures of Art in Great Britain, Supplement', London, 1857, p. 31; B. Berenson, 'Drawings of the Florentine Painters', Chicago, 1938, II, no. 1026; A.E. Popham, 'The Drawings of Leonardo da Vinci', London, 1946 (and later editions), nos. 9A and B; A.E. Popham and P. Pouncey, 'Italian drawings in the BM, the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries', London, 1950, I, no. 97, II, pl. XCVI (with previous literature); A.E. Popham, in exhib. cat., London, Royal Academy, 'Leonardo da Vinci quincentenary exhibition', 1952, no. 24; J. Bean, 'Bayonne, Musée Bonnat: les dessins italiens de la collection Bonnat', Paris, 1960, under no. 41; N. Turner and M. Royalton-Kisch, in exhib. cat., Adelaide, Art Gallery of South Australia and Melbourne, National Gallery of Victoria, 'Leonardo, Michelangelo and the century of genius: master drawings from the British Museum', 1980, no. 25; J. Rowlands (ed.), in exhib. cat., BM, 'Master Drawings and Watercolours in the British Museum', 1984, no. 8; N. Turner, in exhib. cat., BM, 'Florentine Drawings of the sixteenth century', 1986, no. 2; M. Kemp and J. Roberts, in exhib. cat., London, Hayward Gallery, 'Leonardo da Vinci', 1989, no. 6; M. Kemp (ed.), in exhib. cat., Edinburgh, National Gallery of Scotland, 1992, 'The Mystery of the Madonna of the Yardwinder', no. 8; M. Wiemers, 'Bildform und Werkgenese: Studien zur zeichnerischen Bildvorbereitung in der italienischen Malerei zwischen 1450 und 1490', Munich, 1996, pp. XX, fig. ??; P.L. Rubin, in exhib. cat., London, National Gallery, 'Renaissance Florence: the Art of the 1470s', 1999, no. 38; H. Chapman, in exh. cat. (by H. Chapman, T. Henry. C. Plazzotta et al), London, National Gallery, 'Raphael: from Urbino to Rome', 2004, no. 48; C. Van Cleave, 'Master Drawings of the Italian Renaissance', London, 2007, p. 86, illustrated p. 90 (recto) and 91 (verso)
Popham & Pouncey 1950
In addition to these three sheets there are at least three others with studies of the Virgin and Child, Who holds, or plays with, a cat. These are:
i. Florence, Uffizi, no. 421F (Bodmer 120; BB 1015). The Virgin is represented almost to the knees, standing behind a round table, on which the Child sprawls, holding the cat on the r. This is the most finished of all the studies.
ii. London, Mrs. A. H. Pollen (Bodmer 125; BB 1045A). The Virgin is seen full-length, seated, with the Child on her r. leg, her head bent over to the 1. : He holds the cat on the 1.
iii. Bayonne, Musée Bonnat (Bodmer 122; BB 1075). Three studies on the sheet. In the most complete one the Virgin is seen whole length, seated, facing to the front, with the Child on her lap; her head is inclined to the r. The Child holds the forepart of the cat, the hind legs of which are on the bench on which the Vir gin is seated.
No picture of the subject, in any of the variations found, is known to exist. [That exhibited at Milan in the Leonardo Exhibition (Repr. 'Leonardo da Vinci', Instituto Geografico de Agostini, Novara, 1939, opp. p. 96) hardly deserves mention.] It is difficult to feel certain as to which, if any, was the final version. The most closely knit and, taking into account Leonardo's later development, the most characteristic is adumbrated on 1856,0621.1 recto and verso and in the Pollen sketch. Both sides of the former have indications of an arched frame, showing that Leonardo was definitely thinking of a painting of that form; and on the verso of 1856,0621.1 a window is placed in exactly the same position as in the 'Madonna Benois'. It is possible that the 'Madonna del Gatto' was in fact an earlier stage of this composition and that the cat was finally abandoned in favour of a flower.
This group of studies is generally dated about 1478, but there is a very close resemblance between the types of the Madonna in the Uffizi drawing, on the verso of 1856,0621.1 and in the Uffizi 'Adoration of the Magi' of 1481.
The maiden and the unicorn on the verso of 1860,0616.98 reappear in a very similar form on a sheet in the Ashmolean (Bodmer 126 right; BB 1057). An engraving by Agostino Veneziano dated 1516 (B. xiv, p. 288, 379) is connected with this composition. It would seem probable, therefore, that the subject was carried further than a sketch.
Literature: BB 1026; Comm. Vinciana, i (1928), 23 (recto), 22 (verso); Bodmer 161 (recto), 162 (verso); Popham 9B (recto), 9A (verso); C. R(icketts), Vasari Society, Second Series, iii (1922), 3 (recto), 4 (verso); Thiis, p. 170; Poggi, pl. 51; Popp 9; Suida, p. 52; Nicodemi, pl. 53; Bottari, pl. 29 (recto), pl. 28 (verso); Giglioli, p. 95, pl. LI; B.M. Guide, 1858, no. 47; Venturi, pp. 81 f.; Clark, pp. 20 f.; Seidlitz, i, p. 76; I. Seligman, 'Lines of Thought', London, 2016, no. 72, p. 117 (verso).
- Not on display
- Exhibition history
1952, London, Royal Academy, No. 24
1980, Adelaide and Melbourne, No. 25
1984, BM, 'Master Drawings and Watercolours in the British Museum', No. 8
1986, BM, 'Florentine Drawings 16th C', no. 2
1989, London, Hayward Gallery, 'Leonardo da Vinci', No. 6
1992 May-July, Edinburgh, NGS, The Mystery of the Madonna of the Yarnwinder,no.8
1999, London, National Gallery, 'Renaissance Florence, the art of the 1470s', no.38
2004-2005 Oct-Jan, London, National Gallery, 'Raphael: From Urbino to Rome', no. 48
2012 March-May, Paris, Louvre, La Vierge a l'Enfant avec Sainte Anne
2015 Apr-Jul, Milan, Palazzo Reale, 'Leonardo 1452-1519'
2017 May - Sep, New Mexico Museum of Art, Santa Fe, 'Lines of thought: Drawing from Michelangelo to now', no. 72 (verso)
2017-2018 Oct - Jan, RISD Museum, Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, 'Lines of thought: Drawing from Michelangelo to now', no. 72 (verso)
2019-2020 14 Nov-12 Jan, London, BM, G90a, '50th Anniversary of the Harold Wright Scholarship' (verso)
- Acquisition date
- Acquisition notes
- The drawing was sold by Poggi to Esterházy, whose mark is almost entirely erased with a meaningless "P" stamped over it. This is characteristic of the drawings stolen from the Esterházy collection in 1855 by its librarian Josef Altenkopf. He must have sold it directly or indirectly to Cavalcaselle, from whom it was purchased by the BM the following year for £45.
Popham & Pouncey 1950
Prince N. Esterhàzy (L. 1965, almost entirely erased, with a "P". stamped over it); G. B. Cavalcaselle. The careful erasure and attempted concealment of the Esterhàzy mark (only recently detected) and the fact that the date of acquisition closely follows that of the theft, by the librarian Joseph Altenkopf, in 1855, of a large number of important engravings and etchings from the Esterhàzy Collection, point to the present drawing having been stolen on the same occasion. Prince Esterhàzy acquired many of his prints and drawings, including some Leonardo drawings, from A. C. Poggi in Paris, in 1810. The whole of the collection, except the material purloined by Altenkopf, which was never recovered, was bought by the Hungarian State in 1870 and forms the nucleus of the Budapest Museum. The "P." stamped on the drawing has hitherto been regarded as the mark of the Pacetti Collection and is reproduced as such by L. Fagan (Collectors' Marks, 1883, no. 400). It differs from the Pacetti mark, however, in having a full-stop.
- Prints and Drawings
- Registration number