It was the best of times (exciting new acquisition), it was the worst of times (the Depression). Both wisdom and folly were in ample supply when the Museum purchased Cat, an exquisite Egyptian artifact created during the 26th Dynasty of Egypt (664–525 BC). Sculpted in bronze and originally intended to contain a cat mummy, this 14-inch-tall feline was purchased from a private collector in 1938 and would become a popular work in our permanent collection.
But we were in the throes of the Great Depression. So why would then-curator Thomas T. Hoopes pay $14,400 for what one newspaper called a “costly bric-a-brac”? (Perspective: gas was 10 cents a gallon, bread was nine cents, and you could get a new house for less than a third of what Cat cost!) Other headlines included “It Isn’t the Cat’s Whiskers!” and “Black Cat Crosses the City’s Path.” Newspapers from New York to Paris weighed in.
The Associated Press reported that the price tag “…stirred up the rumpus among unionists, persons on relief, women’s clubs, the city administration and the art museum.” One letter writer suggested the Saint Louis Art Museum sell the entire collection and display members of the Art Commission, charging 25 cents to see them. Another letter writer pointed out that, unlike acquisitions by the Saint Louis Zoo, at least this cat didn’t require feeding. A writer even posed as Cat to pen a letter to the editor defending herself. But it was no laughing matter when union laborers picketed City Hall in protest, and there was a bill put forth to cut Museum funding. It did not pass.
On the tail end of all that is the “best” part of the tale: A whopping 51,323 cat-curious citizens visited Cat the month of her debut, the second highest attendance by month at the time.
Eventually, Cat caught the attention of Hollywood, too. Screenwriter and director Albert Lewin asked to borrow it for his 1945 film, The Picture of Dorian Gray. “I have seen the Egyptian things in the Louvre, and also in…Cairo, and I think this cat is one of the most beautiful of all,” he gushed.
Museum officials decided Cat was too fragile and not ready for her close-up, but allowed Lewin to create a slightly taller replica to star in the film adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s novel. When Dorian wishes he could stay young forever, it’s the cat that dispenses the curse. The movie would win two Academy Awards and a Golden Globe. And currently on view at the Art Institute of Chicago is Ivan Albright’s painting of the horrific, cursed Gray that is featured in the film.
While Cat might not have found the level of fame of, say, Grumpy Cat, she is an exemplary example of the popular votive figures created in honor of the Egyptian goddess Bastet, a deity associated with motherhood and a guardian of pregnant women. We hope when you visit her in Gallery 313 you’ll agree that the $14,400 was well spent.