Art & Photography / In Pictures

Balthus and Cats

A new book considers controversial painter Balthus' lifelong fascination with felines

Balthus, The Game of Patience, 1945–55
Balthus, The Game of Patience, 1945–55 © Collection of the artist

From an early age controversial painter Balthus enjoyed life as part of the post-war Parisian intellectual and artistic elite. His family, including his prominent art historian father, philosopher brother, and artist mother, counted amongst their friends writers André Gide and Jean Cocteau, as well as the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, and painter Pierre Matisse.

An artist himself, Balthus was famous for his lifelong fascination with cats. At the age of nine he produced forty drawings in India ink, recounting the tale of Mitsou, his pet cat who would eventually run away, leaving him inconsolable. Several years later the story of Mitsou would be published as a picture book, with Balthus’ drawings accompanied by Rilke’s words.

In a new volume dedicated to Balthus’ feline fascination, close personal friend of the artist, Alain Vircondelet, introduces the reader to the various cats that populated Balthus’ paintings over the years, and provides insight into his personal life, with photographs taken before he passed away in 2008.

"At the age of nine Balthus produced forty drawings in India ink, recounting the tale of Mitsou, his pet cat"

Throughout his life Balthus would continue to paint cats, often as part of portraits in which one can see Balthus’ other obsession, young girls. Often shown lounging in ambiguous poses – legs open, underwear showing, sometimes naked – Balthus’ seemingly sexualised vision of pubescent girls led many to question the painter’s motives. He always defended his work, saying that responses to these scenes said more about the viewer than it did his desires.

Despite his work’s grey morality, or perhaps because of it, Balthus would continue throughout his life to find support from other artists and luminaries, including surrealist André Breton, Pablo Picasso, playwright Antonin Artaud, Albert Camus, noted psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, and filmmaker Federico Fellini.

“For felines are one of the most ‘ancient’ animals,” writes Vircondelet. “One of those which, in every civilization, has remained closest to the primeval knot – to those ties that bind the world, that unravel it in skeins of drama and suffering. And, like a cat, Balthus loves children because they too bear the traces of something prior. Children are like cats; hard to tame, possessing that unforgiving innocence in which happiness lies a hair’s breadth from misfortune, where gentleness is never very far away from meanness, where hatred goes hand in hand with love, where desire alone is supreme.”

At the time of his death in 2008, Balthus was living in Switzerland with his second wife, Setsuko, a Japanese artist thirty-five years his junior, who shares her husband’s love of cats, and continues to depict them in her own paintings to this day.

Balthus and Cats is available now from Flammarion.

Text by Ananda Pellerin


Ananda Pellerin is a London-based writer and regular contributor to