If you have ever enjoyed Monty Python’s 1983 “Fish slapping dance” you will love this painting.
It is the most hilarious, but already 18th century version of a 16th century anonymous composition known by a print of a French engraver called le Blond. Our picture, a late example of Italian “pittura ridicola”, is clearly inspired by works of Bartolomeo Passarotti from the second half of the 16th century. But our painter has brought his humour here to another, more crazy level. Several other, also anonymous paintings of this composition exist, but none of them have the crazy, completely exaggerated sense of humour of this farce.
About the subject of our painting from the 16th until the 18th century
In 16th to 18th century European painting and engraving the comical subject of people feeding and entertaining a swaddled cat is rare, but can be found in France, Italy, Flanders, Holland and the United Kingdom, often with a different meaning.
By far the most crazy representation of this subject is our painting.
The oldest depictions of this subject date from the 16th century:
- a French engraving by a further unknown engraver named Le Blond. Sadly the engraving does not mention who designed the original composition;
- a painting given to the circle of the Italian Mannerist painter from Bologna, Bartolomeo Passerotti (1529-1592), sold at Sotheby’s New York. A weaker version of the same composition, unsold at Artcurial, was said to be Flemish or Dutch, circa 1600. Another version, probably already 17th century, is at the National Gallery in Helsinki;
- a more extensive Italian composition with more figures sits at the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Nantes, France.
The text of the 16th century French engraving by Le Blond reads as follows:
"With good reason, I can say / that the faces that are here / that have nothing but laughter / compel me to laugh too. // Is there any melancholy / matching that madman / Who wants to give porridge / To this ridiculous tomcat. // But I find even more foolish / Margot's extravagance / Who covers and swaddles it / More narrowly than a fagot. // A joker gives them an aubade / In order to honor this beautiful game / or better to make grill / He takes the pincers of the fire."
("Avec que raison je puis dire / Que les visages que voicy / Qui n'ont point de soing que de rire / Me contraignent de rire aussi. // Esti quelque mélancholie / Qui vaille celle de ce fou / Qui veut donner de la bouillie / A ce ridicule matou. // Mais je trouve encore plus sotte / L'extravagance de Margot / Qui l'embéguine et l'emmaillotte / Plus estroittement qu'un fagot. // Un badin leur donne une aubade / Afin d'honnorer ce beau jeu / ou plustost pour faire grillade / Il prend les pincètes du feu.")
Malcolm Jones notes the appearance of Margot la Folle, which is also the name of Brueghel's masterpiece "Dulle Griet" in French.
In the 17th century we get:
- an English engraving of the Fumblers club, which was re-published in the early and again in the mid-18th century. Here the figures and the meaning are completely different: a fumbler, in French a “Jean qui ne peut”, is an impotent man. In the Washington DC engraving his wife has addopted a cat and invited “gossips” to a birthday party for the cat. But just as in the above-given 16th century depictions the cat is fed and one of the figures plays music on the grid-iron;
- a rather silly old peasant woman feeding a cat as if it were a baby by David Ryckaert III from the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, Russia. This time the woman is feeding porridge on a spoon to a cat wrapped in a blanket like an infant.
Finally in the 18th century the English printmaker John Raphael Smith published a similar subject of a woman feeding a swaddled cat on her lap from a steaming bowl on the table.
About our painting
Our painting has to be seen within the Italian tradition of comic and so-called ridiculous painting (“la pittura ridicola”), that actually goes back to Flemish caricature and to the studies of physiognomy of Leonardo da Vinci.
During the second half of the 16th century several painters made some unflattering, crude, naturalist genre scenes:
- Bartolomeo Passarotti (1529 – 1592, mainly active in Bologna and a few years in Rome),
- Vincenzo Campi (circa 1530/35 – 1591, active in Cremona in S. Lombardy),
- Niccolo Frangipane (documented between 1563 and 1597 in the Veneto and along the Adriatic coast) and
- Giovanni Paolo Lomazzo (1538 – 1592, active in Milan in and in Lomazzo).
In their comic genre scenes these painters share a strongly accented, if not exaggerated, expression of the passions and of unrestrained, irreverent and inappropriate behaviour. One may describe the style of their genre scenes as grotesque realism with a strong sense of humour. The protagonists are often shown in close-up, as half-lengths; the visual organisation of the composition draws the spectators into the scene.
Barry Wind (1974) saw late 16th century comic painting serving as a “sustained bawdy joke for an educated man with a low sense of humour”. He forgot that in these paintings of mildly amusing situations there is often a moralising overtone.
Our painter was clearly inspired by the engraving of le Blond and/or the comic genre scenes of Bartolomeo Passarotti. But he brought the “pittura ridicola” here to yet another, even sharper and almost Monty Pythonesque level: this composition is farcical and ludicrous at the same time.
Why should you buy this painting?
Because it is absolutely hilarious.