Soft velvet paws and balls of fluff: cats in Brussels' museums

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Léon Spilliaert "Chat de dos, debout et tourné vers l'horizon", 1901-1902, Plume, crayon et encre de Chine sur papier © KBR

Benevolent spirits for some, the devil incarnate for others, emblematic symbols of freedom and independence par excellence... cats have transcended the ages and artistic styles with their characteristic casual elegance.🐱

Whether they're the star of a piece or snuggled away in the background of a painting, cats can be found drawn, sculpted, painted or even stuffed throughout the permanent collections of Brussels' museums. Japanese prints, contemporary art, Peruvian embroidery or Art Deco sculpture... to mark International Cat Day, join us as we follow in the countless little padded footsteps of the capital's feline museum residents.


With a few simple lines and an obvious economy of means, Léon Spilliaert (1881-1946) evokes the striking image of a black cat. Drawn in Indian ink, the animal is seen from behind and stares enigmatically at the horizon. This work reflects the very personal style of introvert Spilliaert, whose work constantly reflects his deepest emotions. Made in 1902, the drawing belongs to the Belgian artist's earliest and most original period. It was during this period that he would regularly leave his native Ostend to live and work in Brussels. The black cat is traditionally associated with dark forces, misfortune and death. It's possible that Spilliaert was referring to The Black Cat (1843), a popular short story by Edgar Allan Poe, whose work he was especially fond of.

Where can you view it?: Preserved in the Cabinet des Estampes, visible by appointment


Édouard-Marcel Sandoz, Chat assis, 1925, bronze, Fonderie Susse Frères © Collection Musée Art et Histoire

This elegant seated feline is the best known work of famous animal sculptor Édouard-Marcel Sandoz. The inspiration is clear: ancient Egypt. Nevertheless, the style of the piece can be described as purely Art Deco. This style, which reached its peak in the inter-war period, is in keeping with tradition, while at the same time modernising it. By mixing Cubist influences with the style of ancient Egypt, the work became iconic and was considered avant-garde for its time. "Chat Assis" was presented at the famous International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts in 1925, where the copy kept in the Art and History Museum was purchased.

Where can you view it?: Magasins Wolfers - Art and History Museum

This fragment formed the border of a large textile that wrapped the deceased. It shows several embroidered felines. They are probably pumas, considered powerful animals and venerated throughout the Andes. Here, it's interesting to note the play of colours and the inversions of the motif. Indeed, the first animal, in an inverted position, is blue and has another yellow feline inscribed in its body, which itself includes a small green puma. The next animal, standing on its legs, is green with two animals inscribed in it. The pattern repeats itself in a row, creating a veritable algorithm of creation.

Where can you view it? : Inv. AAM 46.7.374 (Americas store).

Meisho Edo hyakkei (Cent vues d'endroits célèbres d'Edo): Les rizières d'Asakusa et le pèlerinage, le jour du marché du Coq , 1857, gravure sur bois © Collection Musée Art et Histoire

Cette estampe japonaise nous transporte au sein d’une maison close située dans le célèbre quartier de Yoshiwara (Tokyo). Ce quartier des plaisirs se trouvait un peu à l'extérieur de la ville. La vue montre les rizières d'Asakusa au crépuscule, avec le soleil se couchant derrière le Mont Fuji. La scène évoque le marché du Coq, que l’on aperçoit à l’arrière-plan. C’était un jour de fête dans le quartier des plaisirs car les courtisanes étaient exceptionnellement autorisées à recevoir un client pendant la journée. Sur le rebord de la fenêtre, le chat est le témoin silencieux de la visite d'un client l'après-midi. Ce dernier a offert à la courtisane un nouveau jeu d'épingles à cheveux, qui git sur le sol. La femme demeure invisible, on l’imagine derrière le paravent, à gauche. Le paquet de mouchoirs au sol indique qu'elle en a fini avec le client. Tous ces détails ne dérangent pas le chat, qui fait ce que les chats font si bien : regarder imperturbablement par la fenêtre.

Where can you view it? : Preserved in the Cabinet des Estampes, visible by appointment


Alain Delaunay, sans titre, crayons de couleur sur papier © Collection art et marges musée

The animal kingdom is Belgian artist Alain Delaunay's primary source of inspiration. With his own unique method and patience, he creates works in coloured pencil of exceptional quality. He aligns, crosses and superimposes an infinite number of small strokes of colour that give the decorations in his paintings enormous depth and an incredibly smooth finish. It takes weeks to complete a single drawing. Here, the yellow-eyed cat that emerges from the tall grass seems to be addressing us directly. Or is it preparing to jump out of the piece?

Where can you view it? : collections of the Art et Marges museum


Pluton, chat empaillé. Seconde Guerre mondiale, don de Jacques Janssens en 1998 © Musée royal de l’Armée et d’Histoire militaire

Come and discover Pluton at Brussels’ Royal Museum of the Armed Forces and Military History! This cat, a member of the resistance during the Second World War, was used by the Armée Secrète to transport messages on little scraps of paper hidden in his collar. Less famous than his cousins, Unsinkable Sam and Acoustic Kitty, he remains a little Belgian hero! To get a glimpse of this extraordinary cat, head to the first floor of the museum's 1940-1945 "War - Occupation - Liberation" exhibition, which has been his home since he was gifted to the museum in February 1998.

Where can you view it?: The Royal Museum of the Armed Forces and Military History’s 1940-1945 exhibition (Bordiau building).


Jan Sanders van Hemessen et Maître de Paul et Barnabé, L'enfant prodigue, 1536, © Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Bruxelles. Photo : J. Geleyns - Art Photography

By mixing Italian and Flemish styles, Jan Sanders van Hemessen and Maître de Paul offer a lively and colourful retelling of the Gospel's parable of the Prodigal Son. With an extraordinary sense of movement and detail, the Antwerp painter transposes the scene to a brothel where the prodigal son squanders his inheritance in the midst of prostitutes and rogues. Musicians, laughter, luxurious clothes and wine...the production is meticulous and realistic. In the lower left corner, a grey cat lurks. It is the companion of the woman at her side and, like her, is taking advantage of the situation. It is very likely that the feline is associated here, as is sometimes the case, with lust, while symbolising voluptuousness.

Where can you view it? : The Old Masters Museum, room 67, from 15 October 2021

More cats at the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium:


Henk Visch, The stolen painting, 2010-2019, aluminium, acrylique, Atelier Henk Visch © Vue d’exposition Xavier Noiret-Thomé & Henk Visch. PANORAMA, CENTRALE, 2020 © Philippe De Gobert

When asked about his colourful feline, Dutch sculptor Henk Visch had this to say: "The cat is a very attentive animal that watches everything. It is a witness. 'The Stolen Painting' refers to the theft of a painting that the cat witnesses. But how can he tell? By looking like a painting himself, of course! Every year I try to paint. I think it's great to do a painting and look at it, but I'm never satisfied with it, I really can't do it. It makes me angry not to be able to paint and I prefer to blame someone else: my painting has been stolen! And the cat is my witness! But the cat has now become a constant reminder that I can't paint.” – Henk Visch.


Fernand et "Jichtapok", photo © Francine D'Hulst, expo Schirren « Le pianiste accompagnateur de films muets » © CINEMATEK

Fernand Schirren (1920-2001) was an influential character in the world of music: an extraordinary musician, professor of rhythm and accompanier of silent movies at the Cinematek. International Cat Day gives us the opportunity to look at his love of cats.

In the photo, Schirren has on his lap the cat named "Jichtapok", a unique name without meaning or story, made up purely for the quality of its sound. It’s striking to think that Schirren gave each of his cats this special name. You can discover this loving photo together with other personal objects, film footage and archive documents until 31 August in the CINEMATEK’s temporary exhibition.

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Philippe Geluck's famous feline has been out and about in recent month. His creator says he likes to "wander". But he also likes to go home from time to time. Born in the Brussels commune of Etterbeek, Philippe Geluck organised a break for him at the Sofitel Brussels Europe on Place Jourdan. "Place Jourdan", he confides, "is the main square of my childhood". The artist remembers the small shops that used to line the square, which have now disappeared. The temporary exhibition, precedes the Le Chat installation in the heart of Brussels, in the museum that will soon be dedicated to him.

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More Brussels cats…

In Brussels, cats are everywhere and have also taken over the streets... here are some urban cats for you to discover and extend your visit outside: meow!