By all rights we should be breaking this news on Facebook. Nevertheless, here goes: The World’s Greatest Painting of Cats is coming to the Portland Art Museum. It was so decreed in 1949 by no less an authority than Cat Magazine, which really ought to know, and is expected, after some weather-related travel delays, to be installed and ready for viewing at the museum on Wednesday. “Carl Kahler’s cat painting is a truly monumental homage to the species,” Dawson Carr, the museum’s curator of European art, said in a press statement, and the painting’s monumentality is beyond dispute: It’s six feet tall and eight and a half feet wide, and loaded with Persians and Angoras, which were the passions of Kate Birdsall Johnson, the 19th century San Francisco millionaire for whom Kahler painted the thing in 1891. Johnson’s husband, an iron and hardware heir who had died two years earlier, referred to her menagerie – affectionately, I imagine, or maybe just with the resignation of one who had come to understand and accept his own slightly lesser standing in the household – as “My Wife’s Lovers,” and that’s the title that’s stuck to the painting.
Kahler’s painting was bought at auction from Sotheby’s in November by northern California collectors John and Heather Mozart, and will be hanging around the Portland museum for a while before heading to its new home. Oregon tax laws make it advantageous for purchasers of art to “park” their new works in one of the state’s museums for a few months rather than taking them directly to their own states. “At the painting’s center is the pride of the collection,” the museum said in a press release, “a magnificent Persian named Sultan, who was purchased in Paris for a huge sum. Around him, outstanding individuals and family groups are depicted from virtually every angle and with a wide range of personality traits. Kahler enlivened the scene with anecdotal details, such as the cats stalking a moth and, of course, much playful feline interaction.”
This is all well and good, and bound to draw thousands of art and cat devotees, who often are one and the same. If I might make a modest proposal to the museum, it might be a good idea – and, let’s face it, only fair – also to borrow one of Cassius Marcellus Coolidge’s famous paintings of well-dressed dogs playing cards, and display the two together. I might suggest, for instance, Coolidge’s 1903 painting His Station and Four Aces, which depicts the pickle of a poor business dog on a commuter train who’s just drawn the best hand of his life, but must get off because it’s his stop.
The situation, of course, would utterly flummox any dog. If I could, I would commission a third painting, in honor of Jack, the Finest Cat Who Ever Lived, and who used up his ninth and final life several months ago at the age of 15, which would have put him somewhere in his 80s in human years. In this painting, Jack would stare down the conductor, who would nervously signal the engineer to shut the train down for a few minutes. Then Jack would calmly finish off his hand, keeping that poker face firmly in place, sweep his winnings grandly into his waist pocket, bid the suckers farewell, and walk off to the platform. Swagger, actually.
Jack, by the way, was no Persian or Angora. He was short-haired and white, with a few black patches, and a mangled ear from a midnight brawl. If he’d been a dog, you would have called him a mongrel or a mutt. Of course, if you had called him a dog, he’d have taken a piece out of you. Very quickly and precisely, just to remind you of your place. Then he’d have licked his paw, cocked his head ever so slightly, and strutted off. Everything Jack did, he did with art.