When Henriette Knip was 11 years old she received an easel from her father the painter Josephus Augustus Knip (1777-1847) and this was the beginning of a productive existence as a painter. At the age of fifteen she had already sold her first painting at an exhibition in Düsseldorf. Taught by her father - who focused on painting historical works and portraits – she focused more on landscapes and animals. In 1850 she married Feico Ronner and together they moved to Brussels. The Belgian capital enjoyed an industrious and prosperous climate, in which art became increasingly important. Her fame soon rose, especially after the Queen of Belgium commissioned her to paint two of her favorite lapdogs in 1876. This led to many more commissions for depicting domestic animals, her patrons including the King of Hanover, Emperor Wilhelm I of Prussia and the Princess of Wales.
At the turn of the 19th Century, the cat was elevated into a classy animal and Henriette took advantage of the new trend. She was extremely fond of this cute and cuddly animal and painted hundreds of them, romping in an often cozy and comfortable 19th Century interior. Her depictions of the animals were wildly popular among society, especially among the nouveaux riches, which made her popularity grow immensely internationally. Ronner's fashionable portrayal of cats in a contemporary interior appealed to such a great extent that an English critic wrote: 'The artists who have succeeded in rendering the cat may be counted on the fingers of one hand - the Japanese Hokusai, the Swiss Mind, the English Burbank, the French Lambert, and the Dutch Mme. Ronner - and the greatest of these, the one who has succeeded absolutely and all round, is the last, the lady' (see: Harry Kraaij, Henriette Ronner-Knip 1821-1909: Een virtuoos dierschilderes, Schiedam, 1998, p. 9).
The present painting shows exactly what was then, and still is, appealing about Henriette's oeuvre: the felines are rendered exactly like real cats: the positions are realistic and not contrived and she succeeds in creating wonderfully soft entangled fur with depth, rather than a flat neatly combed pelt. Each of the kittens is positioned to display a different view of their mischievous play, with individual expressions revealing independent characters. It is crucial however, not to characterize Ronner's art as merely cute and amiable. Her drawings and paintings are equally fine in a technical sense. It is clear that she observed the animals very closely and over a large period of time: their complicated anatomy is captured with an extraordinarily high standard. Apart from observation she was able to achieve this by her way of handling brush and paint. The loose and almost nonchalant brushstrokes achieve an image that is perhaps more accurate than when the paint is applied in a more controlled manner because it complements the stubborn and playful nature of cats. In this way her execution demonstrates the lively character of the animals.