October 4 is generally recognized as the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi, patron of the animals, steward of nature, and author of the Canticle of the Creatures. In a divinely ordained cosmos, Francis considered all elements – sun, moon, and stars, water and fire, and the animals – our sisters and brothers, and he is often depicted and described preaching to the birds, as in Giotto’s panel shown here, 1295-1300. The cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York famously marks his feast day with the blessing of the animals. Thousands of creatures, from tortoises to camels, process though the nave, gather in the yard, and are blessed by clergy. This scene is replayed throughout churches around the globe, a celebration of the beasts that surround us and enhance our lives.
“It is told that at the age of four, when I was taken by the nurse to look at my newly arrived brother Hugo, I seriously remarked, ‘I’d like a little kitten better.’ I am fond of dogs, but cats have always meant more to me, and they have been the wise and sympathetic companions of many a solitary hour.”
–Arnold Genthe, As I Remember (1936)
Arnold Genthe is best remembered for his photos of San Francisco’s Chinatown, the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, and his portraits of notables, from celebrities to politicians. Maybe that list should also include cats.
A self-taught photographer, Genthe opened a portrait studio in San Francisco in the late 1890s. His clientele grew to include personages like silent actress Nance O’Neil, theater legend Sarah Bernhardt, poet Nora May French, and author Jack London. In 1911 Genthe moved to New York City, where he concentrated primarily on portraiture, photographing such towering figures as Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and John D. Rockefeller. And all the while, he was photographing cats. Among the more than 1,000 images of Genthe’s photographs in the Library of Congress Collection in the Artstor Digital Library, there are 82 that include cats, usually accompanying women, but occasionally alone. More than half of these feature his beloved cat Buzzer (or perhaps that should be “Buzzers,” as he used that name for four cats).
Our slide show is made up of some highlights featuring Buzzer; search the Artstor Digital Library for Genthe and cat to see all of the photographer’s feline friends.