In 1904, while living at 19 Boulevard Edgar Quintet in Paris, Gwen John acquired a tortoiseshell cat, and named her after the street name. It is likely that Study for a Tortoiseshell Cat is of Edgar Quintet, placing the execution of this work between the years 1904-1908. Gwen John drew the cat on several occasions, and Sketch for a Seated Cat, circa 1905-8, in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, is another example in which the cat is sitting in a similar pose to the present work.
When the tortoiseshell cat went missing in 1908, Gwen John wrote a poem 'Au Chat', inspired by her loss, and sent it to her lover August Rodin. She also wrote about the cat in a letter to her friend Ursula Tyrwhitt on 12 July 1908, 'Now the moon is full I am going to be out all night before the moon wanes & when the cats make love I run to see if my sweet is one of them' (quoted C. Langdale, Gwen John, New Haven and London, 1987, pp. 189-190).