The present cast of Le Chat comes from the legendary Lambert Collection. A Belgian banking dynasty renowned for its eponymous Banque Lambert, the Lambert family has also become famed for its esteemed collection, with a love of art passed down through generations. The family’s collection was started in the late 19th Century by Baron Léon Lambert, who, with his wife, Baroness Lucie Lambert, the granddaughter of James de Rothschild, began to acquire and inherit a notable array of artworks from their families. This passion was continued by their son, Baron Henri Lambert and his Viennese wife, Baroness Johanna ‘Hansi’ Lambert. Celebrated for her taste and passion, as well as for the salon that she held in their home in the centre of Brussels, Hansi acquired work by the leading artists of her times, including Bonnard, Klee, Kirchner and Miró, among many others. In 1956, she visited Giacometti’s studio in Paris. It was soon after this meeting that she purchased Le Chat, which has remained in the family’s collection ever since. Hansi’s love for Giacometti was passed down to her eldest son, Léon, who acquired a number of important works by the artist, which were sold together with his other masterpieces of modern and contemporary art at Christie’s New York in 1987. This record-breaking sale achieved the highest ever total for a single-owner collection, with world-record prices made for three of Giacometti’s Grandes femmes debout.
“In a burning building,” Alberto Giacometti declared, “I would save a cat before a Rembrandt" (quoted in J. Lord, Giacometti: A Biography, New York, 1985, p. 299). So one might easily claim, but there is good reason to believe the sculptor’s empathy for creatures great and small, especially on the evidence of the four sculptures that he created in 1951 of three different species of animal—two horses, a dog, and the cat offered here. As Valerie Fletcher has noted, all three were reputedly executed in plaster during a single day (Giacometti, exh. cat., Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C., 1988, p. 165). Each of the sculptures is life-size or even larger—Le Chat has an exceptionally long neck. For lack of space in his cramped studio, Giacometti had to leave the huge Deux chevaux outdoors in his courtyard, where the plaster eventually broke down and dissolved in the rain. The smaller dog and cat were thankfully preserved and cast in bronze.
Because his work in the studio was all-consuming and profoundly solitary, Giacometti enjoyed being outdoors and in the street, and indeed he was—like a cat—an inveterate prowler of the boulevards, side streets, alleys, and quays of Paris. His famous walking men —“a man, always walking,” as he conceived them—and the city square sculptures stemmed directly from his daily and nightly wanderings, as he made his way to neighborhood cafés where he liked to socialize with friends, or when—with no destination in mind—he simply walked for hours on end, in good weather or bad, to think and engage with his surroundings.
Peering into the faces of passersby, Giacometti would meet their gaze. He eyed the prostitutes as they were plying their trade, having been driven into the streets by the officially mandated closing of brothels following the end of the war. “In the street,” he said, “people astound and interest me more than any sculpture or painting” (quoted in R. Hohl, ed., Giacometti: A Biography in Pictures, Ostfildern-Ruit, 1998, p. 135). It was in the world—the street—not the studio, that Giacometti experienced those key, revelatory moments that transformed and guided his art.
The animal creatures that he encountered along the way interested him no less than people, and indeed, he identified with them in sincere and meaningful ways. He did not fail to notice the haggard and overworked dray horses as they pulled at their heavy cartloads. Dogs of all kinds, both leashed and free, were everywhere to be seen. Giacometti in 1964 recounted the origin of Le Chien to James Lord: “For a long time I’d had in mind a memory of a Chinese dog I’d seen somewhere. And then one day I was walking along the rue de Vanves in the rain, close to the walls of the buildings, with my head down, feeling a little sad, perhaps, and I felt like a dog just then. So I made that sculpture. But it’s not really a likeness at all. Only the sad muzzle is anything of a likeness” (quoted in A Giacometti Portrait, New York, 1965, p. 21).
More elusive than horses or dogs, as befits their habits, were cats—some with homes, many without, who lurked about the streets that Giacometti liked to wander, suddenly crossing his path, slipping in and out of sight. Many such felines would remain anonymous, never to be seen again, but those in his own courtyard and from neighboring streets became familiar acquaintances. “In 1950, a mother cat joined Alberto’s household,” the photographer Ernst Scheidegger recalled. “Later the cats (they seemed to multiply) stayed in Diego’s space” (op., cit., 2013, p. 54). Giacometti was fascinated with the art and culture of ancient Egypt, in which the cat was held sacred and often depicted in wall paintings and sculpture.
Picasso also admired cats, the more feral the better: “I don’t like high-class cats that purr on the couch in the parlor, but I adore cats that have turned wild, their hair standing on end. They hunt birds, prowl, roam the streets like demons. They cast their wild eyes at you, ready to pounce on your face. And have you noticed that female cats in the wild are always pregnant? Obviously they think of nothing but love” (quoted in Brassaï, Conversations with Picasso, Chicago, 1999, p. 60). In 1943, Picasso modeled a sculpture of a cat, lowering its hind quarters to defecate on the street (Spies, no. 278).
Giacometti’s pencil-lean cat struggles, and may even fight for its every meal. The dog carries more flesh on its bones, but its rib cage is nonetheless painfully apparent, and with its nose to the ground, it ambles along in pursuit of some potentially rewarding scent. The novelist and playwright Jean Genet described Le Chien in his essay "The Studio of Alberto Giacometti," written in 1957: "He prowls and sniffs, muzzle level with the ground. He is gaunt" (E. White, ed., The Selected Writings of Jean Genet, New York, 1993, p. 316). The dog's bandy-legged gait has a comic if forlorn quality—he is a canine Quixote. The dog's posture bespeaks a weakened and downtrodden existence. Giacometti recounted having set to work immediately on modeling the dog when he returned to the studio, “so as to get rid of the hound for once and for all” (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., 1988, p. 165).
Head up and curious, with its tail level—a signal of amicable intent—the cat appears to have won Giacometti’s admiration; the artist, as the habitual “walking man,” could identify with this feline’s ramrod-straight, head-up posture, its determined, purposeful stride. Genet praised Giacometti’s “splendid cat in plaster, from muzzle to tip of tail, almost horizontal and capable of passing through a mouse hole. Its rigid horizontality reproduces the form a cat retains, even when curled into a ball" (op. cit., 1993, p. 316). If the old hound may not have been long for this world, this very lean, but feisty cat will likely endure, survive, reproduce, and carry on.
Giacometti had not created sculptures of animals previously, but it is not surprising that he undertook to feature these subjects at this time. For the past several years he had been modeling a remarkable series of uniquely postured figures, and body parts thereof, working from memory and his imagination—Homme au doigt, Le Nez, Le Main, the two versions of La Place, Figurine dans un cage, Le Forêt, and L'homme qui chavire, among others. Giacometti’s conception and treatment of the three animal subjects were consistent with this approach. His extreme characterization of the horses, dog, and cat, moreover, mix elements of caricature with intimations of existential dread, in the attenuated, weightless style that he had been practicing at this time, resulting in an effective and engaging melding of unusual, partly humorous content with serious, extreme form.
Le Chat, together with its equine and canine companions, comes near the end of this phase in Giacometti's work. Following the methods he had been practicing in his drawing and painting, the sculptor had already begun to model in plaster directly from the model, usually his wife Annette and his brother Diego. Thereafter Giacometti would limit himself to creating standing female figures, and heads and busts of both women and men (mostly the latter, in the likeness of Diego), which embody a weightier degree of mass and a more palpable sense of physical presence than previously. While the artist continued to create thin, elongated women as he had done in the late 1940s, he was no longer interested in unusual and imagined subjects that did not suit this new conceptual program.
Giacometti never again featured animal subjects among his sculptures. He ceded the animal domain to Diego, who subsequently developed a variety of delightful creature motifs, whose fantasy and charm cast a magical spell, which he employed as freestanding decorations, accessories, and finial motifs for the furniture he began to produce during the 1950s. Diego’s larger bestiary included his own stylish renderings of horses, dogs and cats. In 1961 Diego modeled the first version of his popular Le chat maître d’hôtel, a feline raised up on its hind legs and holding a tray for visitor's cards and messages, a fanciful, utilitarian domestication of Alberto's plucky street cat.
The plaster version of Alberto Giacometti’s Le Chat was first shown publicly in the artist’s premiere solo exhibition in Europe, at the Galerie Maeght, Paris, in 1951; it remains in the collection of the Fondation Alberto et Annette Giacometti, Paris. Casts from the bronze edition are located in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the Fondation Marguerite et Aimé Maeght, Saint-Paul-de-Vence; the Museum Berggruen, Berlin; and the Stiftung Alberto Giacometti, Zürich.
The present bronze was marked as 2/8 during the time of its casting in 1955. The Fondation Giacometti has confirmed that this cast is number 4/8 and has as such added this numbering on the underside.
Of the nine casts of the present sculpture, four are located in museums, including The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Museum Berggruen, Berlin; Alberto Giacometti-Stiftung, Zürich and The Fondation Marguerite et Aimé Maeght. The plaster is in the collection of the Fondation Giacometti.