Child With Cat Birds and Fruit

a Still life after Caravaggio

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio

This unique Baroque still life features a young child, surrounded by fruits and birds, with a tabby cat perched on a ledge behind him.  The cat crouches with its eyes wide and claws unsheathed, looking as if it might pounce on the birds on the floor near the child. The smooth, bright flesh of the child and fruit contrast with harshness of the cat’s claws and sharp beaks of the birds.  Collectors in the 17th-century enjoyed both the technical virtuosity of such scenes, as well as their inherent symbolism and meaning. The innocent child and the ripeness of the fruit, allude to the sweetness and pleasures of life. The delicateness of the birds, enjoying the fruit from the hands of the child, enhance the sense of fragility and innocence.  The cat looks as if it is about to disrupt the peaceful scene, symbolizing the fleetingness of innocence and pleasure. Such cautionary tales were common in still lifes across Europe in the 17th-century.

The dramatic darkness of the background of this painting, and the way the objects seem to be lit by the warm glow of candlelight, show the influence of the famous Baroque artist Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, who worked in Rome from 1592-1606.  After being accused of murder, Caravaggio fled the city to escape capture by the police, and sought refuge in Naples, Malta, and Sicily, until he died in 1610 while still on the run. His signature style spread to these areas and eventually he became well-known throughout the rest of Europe.  This painting shows Caravaggio’s influence both in style and subject. In his early career in Rome he often painted scenes of young men surrounded by fruit. Since Caravaggio’s paintings became increasingly dark and dramatic in his later works in Southern Italy, it is most likely that this was painted by one of his followers there.  Giuseppe Recco (1634-1695) was the most well-known still life painter in Naples in the mid-17th century.  His “A Cat Stealing a Fish” from the late 1660’s currently resides in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum in New York.  Another artist and follower of Caravaggio in Rome, Tommaso Salini (1575-1625) often painted animals, including a few scenes with cats.  Since cats appear infrequently in Baroque art, an attribution for this painting to one of these two artists is possible.