You humans produce a lot of cat art. Much of it is cute or whimsical, some of it is weird—and some of it is so realistic you expect the drawn or painted cat to meow and walk off the canvas. The Swiss artist Gottfried Mind, known as the “Cat Raphael,” was one artist who created that kind of cat realism.
Watercolor by Gottfried Mind, c. 1800
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Mind was born in 1768 in Bern, Switzerland. His father was a cabinetmaker from Hungary, and his mother was a stable servant. The young Gottfried was a weakly child, with unspecified physical and mental disabilities. Today, he is often considered an autistic savant.
When he was nine years old, Gottfried met a landscape painter named Lengel and copied some animal drawings the artist showed him. Gottfried’s work showed unusual skill, but his father had a fondness for wood and thought carving was more worthy than drawing or painting, so he refused to let the boy have any paper on which to draw. The young Mind did become a skilled carver, and toward the end of his life he was known to make miniature carvings from wild chestnuts.
Education and apprenticeship
Gottfried was sent off to school, where he stayed for just a year and a half. The head of the school noted that the boy was “incapable of any demanding work, but full of talent for drawing, especially God’s creatures, which he renders full of artistic caprices and with some wit.”
When he returned to Bern, Gottfried was apprenticed to a painter and engraver named Freudenberg who was known for his engravings of Swiss village scenes. In exchange for room and board and a little money, Gottfried hand-colored his master’s prints. (Color printing in the 18th century was expensive, and so a common practice was to print in black and white and then have apprentices apply color to the prints.) He would live in the Freudenberg household until his death in 1814.
Mother cat on stool playing with kittens.
Lithograph, ca. 1820–1860.
Lithographer: Joseph Brodtmann (1787–1862).
Artist: Gottfried Mind (1768-1814).
Via Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.
It wasn’t until Freudenberg’s death in 1802 that Gottfried got his chance to produce his own original work. Freudenberg’s widow needed money and encouraged the apprentice to work on original drawings and watercolors. This he did, concentrating not on village scenes but on his favorite subjects, cats. He also drew the bears that were kept in Bern at that time.
At first he charged buyers according to the number of animals depicted in a work. Freudenberg’s widow, though, was more astute and charged more for Gottfried’s work. As the artist became known, several printers and engravers published portfolios of his drawings, making money for themselves but not for Gottfried.
Why cats? Well, by some accounts, Gottfried’s unusual appearance made people fear him and human interaction was difficult. But cats didn’t care what he looked like, didn’t care that he wasn’t quite “normal.” He liked to have a cat on his lap or shoulder and, as is the habit of a true cat lover, he would stay in an uncomfortable position to avoid disturbing a comfortable cat. In the hours he spent in the company of cats, the felines’ appearance so imprinted itself on his brain that he was later able to draw or paint the animals from memory.
Gottfried Mind could not write his name, but that did not matter, because he certainly could draw a cat.
See more of Gottfried Mind’s work on She of Little Talent’s Pinterest board Gottfried Mind’s Cats.
Erlanger, Liselotte. “The Story of Gottfried Mind.” Cat Catalog: The Ultimate Cat Book. Ed. Judy Fireman. New York: Workman Publishing, 1976, pp. 82–83