There are felines hiding in the Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Cats lurk in odd corners of the refined and elegant museums on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., just waiting to be found.
One sits demurely in a well-viewed corner of the fabled Peacock Room. Another is mounted on a wall, staring inscrutably over the heads of wandering tourists. A third is the back of a mirror that likely reflected the face of a Chinese aristocrat applying her makeup.
“We see evidence and writings about, that mention cats as early as the 11th to 12th century,” says Ann Yonemura, the Freer’s senior associate curator of Japanese Art.
The Freer was built to hold the Asian collection of Charles Lang Freer from his worldwide trips in the early 1900s. Next door, the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery holds South Asian items from India, Iran and other countries in the region.
Where do you find the Freer and Sackler’s cats?
• In the famed Peacock Room, painted by James McNeill Whistler, a small fist-sized earthenware kitty from Japan’s Meiji period (1868-1912) sits at the feet of the massive gold-framed painting of “La Princess du pays de la Porcelaine.”
• In the Sackler exhibit of “Feast Your Eyes: A Taste for Luxury in Ancient Iran” there are three curving wine horns from the Parthian period (100 BC-100 A.C.). One has an aggressive lynx, another a lion head.
• A pair of stylized bronze tigers, acquired in 1935, are supposedly from China’s Zhou dynasty, 1046-256 B.C.
• A lion head sculpture from the Amaravati Stupa in India dates back to the 2nd century C.E.
• In the corridor of the Meyer Auditorium, a small bronze hand mirror from China’s Sui dynasty (581-618 C.E.) has stylized frolicking felines on the back.
Hidden in the archives, there are even more cats.
Among Kobayashi Kiyochika’s prints, a playful black and white bobtail plays with a fallen lantern, a dangerous game amid the wooden buildings of Edo (Tokyo). Another has a red-collared white cat with its paw on its squirming prey. The mouse is obviously dinner.
In another, a Zen patriarch threatens a cat with a knife. A black cat glows amid the golden leaves on a silk scroll.
Yonemura says one of the motifs seen in later Japanese art from the 18th-20th century is “cats in association with beautiful women and very often the cat is being cuddled,” as in Tsukioka Yoshitoshi’s “Woman holding cat.”
But really, Yonemura says, it is “the beloved cat who is portrayed in a painting, as if we were taking cellphone photos for our Facebook page (of) our most adorable cat in the world.”
“You know, because ... don’t we think ours is always the most adorable?”