August 16, 2013
Every Cat Has Its Day: Hermitage Museum’s Mouse Catchers Are Immortalized in Portraits
By SOPHIA KISHKOVSKY / in The New York Times / http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/08/16/every-cat-has-its-day-hermitage-museums-mouse-catchers-are-immortalized-in-portraits/
MOSCOW — While it might seem risky to keep dozens of cats near some of the world’s most precious pieces of art, cats are regarded as treasured guardians of the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, patrolling the basement for mice and rats and treated like furry royalty by doting staff members.
The museum even holds an annual Day of the Hermitage Cat to honor its army of felines, members of which have now been immortalized in the rich dress of imperial court servants in portraits commissioned for publication by the Hermitage Magazine, which is published by the museum’s Hermitage XXI Century Foundation. The foundation is working to update the museum.
Zorina Myskova, the magazine’s editor, said in an e-mail that the solemn cats depicted in the portraits were chosen by the museum’s special cat “curator,” Maria Haltunen. Ms. Haltunen is the co-author, with Mary Ann Allin, of a children’s book called “Hermitage Cats Save the Day,” which has been turned into a musical for children with a jazz score by Chris Brubeck.
“This is their first such depiction in this manner, in the tradition of Dutch costumed portrait,” said Ms. Myskova, who added that their dress was carefully selected by a curator in the museum’s Russian costume department, which has vast stores of czarist-era livery costumes and accessories that were considered ideologically suspect until the 1990s.
According to the museum, Peter the Great was the first to give residence to a cat in the Winter Palace, after he built St. Petersburg in the early 18th century, and like so many things that he brought to Russia, the cat was Dutch. His daughter, Empress Elizaveta Petrovna, looked eastward to Kazan, where cats are famous for their hunting prowess and are a symbol of the city. She ordered that “the best and biggest cats suitable for catching mice” be conscripted in the city and appointed them to guard the picture galleries of the Hermitage.
The Hermitage cats are unique in the museum world, Ms. Myskova said, because they continue to do their job.
“Unlike the British Museum, the Hermitage was able to save its cats, which continue to fulfill the function of servants, like those of the livery in which we have dressed them,” she said.
Hermitage Magazine commissioned the portraits from Eldar Zakirov, a 30-year-old graphic artist based in Tashkent, the capital of the Central Asian republic of Uzbekistan. Mr. Zakirov created six images, including the “Hermitage Court Waiter,” who goes by the name Kuzma in daily life at the museum, and the “Hermitage Court Outrunner,” a k a Rikki the Elder.
Mr. Zakirov said by e-mail that he was inspired by the paintings of such classic Russian portrait artists of the 18th and 19th centuries as Orest Kiprensky and Ilya Repin, and varied his technique from “the smooth glazed manner of court portraitists” in some works to “the more free and expressive approach of later masters” in others. He said he also tried to be true to each cat, striving in the portraits “to convey not only a resemblance in portraiture to each specific cat, but also its individual quirks: spots on its mug, the form of its ears, the length of its fur.”
The artist has already had a strong response on his page on the deviantart.com Web site, where he also displays his images of Father Frost, fantasy scenes, and shapely women, and the cats are fast turning into an Internet cat meme. He said he had already received a number of orders from cat owners who would love to see their beloved pets in czarist costume.
Ms. Myskova would not specify if and when there will be mugs or T-shirts of the liveried cats, but said that “our idea will definitely be continued.”