In Aesop's Fables, Arthur Rackham found recreation from the more solemn art of his designs for Wagner's Ring (1910-1911). Heinemann commissioned Aesop in 1912 and Mother Goose in 1913, hoping to put Rackham 'firmly back in the Nursery, where his public had first discovered him' (Hamilton, 1990), and the books sold in commensurately large quantities. The Aesop designs illustrated a retelling of two hundred and sixty-one fables by V. S. Vernon Jones. The first trade edition numbered 15,000 copies, nearly half of which sold within three months of publication. Watercolour plates are juxtaposed with black-and-white text illustrations, some full-page; they include several self-caricatures. A few of the line illustrations were later coloured, for sale.
Venus and the Cat is ninth in the set of thirteen colour plates. 'A Cat fell in love with a handsome young man and begged the goddess Venus to turn her into a woman...' The young man fell in love at first sight, and they married. To test the Cat, Venus let a mouse run loose in the room. '...Forgetting everything, the young woman had no sooner seen the mouse than up she jumped and was after it like a shot: at which the goddess was so disgusted that she changed her back again into a Cat.' Rackham's benign satire often unmasks animal qualities dormant - or sometimes all too obvious - in human beings, but here he shows an animal in human clothing: the young woman has a pointed face and cat's eyes.
There are witty classical allusions: a statuette of the Venus de Milo, silhouettes of Roman heads, a console table with goat's legs, and a Greek krater sporting lively figures. The Venus de Milo is reflected in a mirror which adds depth to the composition by revealing the corner of the room behind the viewer. Incongruously juxtaposed below the Western European four-poster bed, with its rose-patterned chintz curtains, are the couple's ill-matched footwear: his sandals are classical in design, but her slippers are contemporary and pink.
Rackham's Aesop series was exhibited at the Leicester Galleries in Autumn 1912, together with illustrations for the new edition of Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens. A few of the pictures were sold at Christie's in 1915 in aid of the Royal Watercolour Society's Red Cross Fund, but Rackham's notebook seems to indicated that 'Venus and the Cat' was sold (for £23 12s 6d) at the time of the earlier exhibition.
This design was included in the exhibition 'Arthur Rackham, 1867-1939: illustrations, drawings and watercolours', organised by the Sheffield City Art Galleries and shown successively at the Graves Art Gallery, the Bristol City Art Gallery & Museum and the Victoria & Albert Museum, between December 1979 and April 1980.
We are grateful to Anne Stevenson Hobbs for her help in preparing this catalogue entry.