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Two Cats Fighting

Not on view

Two Cats Fighting

Artist: John James Audubon (American, 1785 - 1851)

Date: 1826
Medium: Oil on canvas
Overall: 28 x 36 1/4in. (71.1 x 92.1cm)
Framed: 37 7/8 × 46 1/2 × 4 1/2in. (96.2 × 118.1 × 11.4cm)
Credit Line: Museum Purchase
Object number: 70.66
Label Text
John James Audubon, America's most famous artist-naturalist, painted this work in Edinburgh over the course of two days. He was spurred, no doubt, by the potentially malodorous consequences of taking any longer than that to depict the two cats he had killed and wired into positions that formed a composition described in his diary as "two cats fighting like two devils for a dead squirrel." In executing the work, Audubon went to considerable effort to delineate the texture and color of the cats' fur. Their flying tufts of hair and the drops of blood in the foreground were rapidly painted, imparting a level of spontaneity to the work that is in keeping with the picture's subject and the circumstances under which it was painted.

Paul D. Schweizer

Text Entries

Upon his arrival in Edinburgh in late October of 1826, John James Audubon was quickly lionized by Scottish society. In a letter to his wife begun on December 21, he wrote: “My situation in Edinburgh borders almost on the miraculous . . . I am positively looked on by all the Professors & many of the principal persons here as a very extraordinary man. . . .”(1) For the citizens of Edinburgh the novelty of having a genuine American Woodsman in their midst must certainly have contributed to his popularity; however, Audubon’s colorful background would not have been enough to sustain the public’s interest were it not for the noteworthy exhibition of his drawings, which took place at this time in the rooms of the Royal Institution.

Encouraged by his notoriety, Audubon sought to broaden the range of his artistic output by improving his skill at oil painting in order to provide himself with funds to finance The Birds of America.(2) In the letter of December 21 to his wife Audubon noted: “Since here I have painted 2 pictures in oil now in the Exhibition—One contains II Turkies with a landscape—the other is my Otter in a Trap. My success in Oil painting is truly wonderful—I am called an astonishing artist. . . .”(3) Unmentioned in this letter was his painting of two cats, a pencil sketch for which appears at the bottom of a page of the artist’s journal dated December 5, 1826.(4) Ten days later, Audubon wrote again in his journal of his plans to begin a painting of this subject and of the assistance he received from his agent and friend. “Mr. Lizars has been extremely kind [about] procuring cats for a picture that I will begin tomorrow.”(5) On December 16 he noted how he overcame the difficulties of placing his subjects in a life-like composition: “My canvas was ready and the cats Mr. Daniel Lizars had sent me were ready to be killed! I asked the son of Mrs. Dickie to help me. We hung the poor animals in two minutes each and I put them up in fighting attitudes ready for painting when daylight would come.”(6) Two days later he noted: “My painting, of the cats fighting like two devils for a dead squirrel, I finished at 3 o’clock, having been ten hours at it.”(7)

In view of the dead models that Audubon used for this picture, it is understandable why he spent no more than two days painting this work. And in posing his subjects, Audubon more than likely used the same wiring techniques that proved useful in his ornithological studies. As in those works, however, he was not too adept at blending his subject into a credible space. In executing the Utica painting his major effort went into delineating the color and texture of the fur of the two cats and the dead squirrel, whereas the moonlit sky, the flying tufts of hair, and the drops of blood in the foreground have all been painted quite rapidly, imparting a quality of spontaneity that is in keeping with the subject of the picture. PAUL D. SCHWEIZER   


1. Howard Corning, ed., Letters of John James Audubon, 1826-1840 (Boston: 1930; repr., New York: Kraus Reprint Co., 1969), vol. 1, p. 7.

2. Edward H. Dwight, “Audubonls Oils,” Art in America, vol. 51 (1963), pp. 76-79.

3. Corning, vol. 1, p. 12.

4. Alice Ford, ed., The 1826 Journal of John James Audubon (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1967), p. 276.

5. Ibid., p. 290.

6. Ibid., p. 295.

7. Ibid.


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