More about Cat Playing with Two Dogs

Sr. Contributor

I’m more of a cat person, so I may be a bit biased in my love for this Paulus Potter painting.

Dogs have been good boys since the dawn of time, but we all know it takes a true intellectual to love a cat. But Paulus Potter didn’t just paint the crazy antics that cats and dogs get themselves into - he made a living out of it. Two centuries before Rosa Bonheur won accolades for her animal portraits, Potter was painting animals in landscapes as far as the eye could see.

Potter’s animal paintings immediately caught the attention of seventeenth-century Dutch art world influencers - yes, there were such things. Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, who also launched the young Rembrandt’s career, discovered Paulus Potter and urged him to move to Amsterdam in 1652 to make it in the big city. This move proved positive for Potter’s career, and this was where he was commissioned to paint this picture.

On the surface, Potter painted some cute pets - nothing more than a mischievous cat and two dogs who maybe belong to Paris Hilton, right? Wrong! Now, I know this painting is no Guernica, but stay with me. This painting of pets is just as much about politics as the scathing, larger-than-life piece by Picasso is. The underlying political interpretation of this otherwise adorable painting reveals some serious Dutch shade about the Eighty Years’ War, in which the Netherlands waged war to gain their independence from Spain. Lasting from 1568 to 1648, this war had many ups and downs, with moments of peace that once again bubbled and burst into conflict.

With a war this long, you’d be a fool to think that Dutch didn’t have any deep-seated feelings towards the Spanish. Ending just four years before Paulus Potter painted this, the Eighty Years’ War was still very fresh in the collective Dutch psyche. Coupled with the bravado of the newly-victorious Dutch, the time was ripe for a weirdly assertive painting of pets. A political reading of this painting declares that the cat represents the strength and cunning of Holland, and the two dogs are stand-ins for Spain - and not in a nice way. Seventeenth-century Dutch people called spaniels Spanish dogs, and one spaniel is wearing a pair of earrings that would have been the height of contemporary Spanish fashion. The dogs are definitely cute, but that’s not the point. Potter wants us to understand that these floofy boys are no match for the cat’s wit - a bold statement of the strength of the Netherlands after centuries of getting the beatdown from Spain.