John Henry Dolph (1835-1903), American
Kitten and Cigar, undated (about 1898)
oil on board, 10 in. x 7 in. (viewable area framed: 9 5/8 in. x 6 5/8 in.)
(framed dimensions: 17 7/8 in. x 14 7/8 in.)
Signed lower left: “JH Dolph”
This painting by the celebrated American painter of cats and dogs, or more often kittens and puppies, is a fine example of his later work. His best cat paintings exhibit a keen understanding of the subject matter, appear very naturalistic, and convey the artist’s genuine affection for his models. Here we have a brownish-gray tabby kitten intently watching a smoldering cigar. The viewer has a sense that in just a moment the kitten will cautiously bat at it with one paw. The tabby is confidently painted by an artist who has mastered his technique. With an economy of means he perfectly suggests its soft fur and delightful markings, using the toned ground as a mid range value to work over. The background in this little drama is painted quickly and simply while the cigar and its wisp of smoke is also artfully depicted with just a touch of red paint to suggest the burning tobacco.
Dolph explored this subject, kittens with a cigarette or cigar as a prop, on more than one occasion. In the August 1898 edition of the Photo-Beacon magazine, a visitor to his studio commented on just such a painting – perhaps even this very painting being offered here: “He had one picture of a kitten lying on a table and a lighted cigarette in front of it. I wish you could see the expression on that kitten – surprise, curiosity, anxiety and a little bit of fighting; all the human passions expressed in the face of the kitten.”
After the death of his mother when he was fourteen, John Heny Dolph left home and with a friend from Columbus, Ohio, he earned a living as a decorative painter for coaches and carriages. In 1855 he began to study with Allen Smith in Cleveland and began portrait painting. He also spent time in Detroit and Chicago seeking commissions, until in 1863 he left the Midwest for New York. He began to paint landscapes and genre scenes, eventually specializing in farmyard genre and animal life. In 1870 he traveled to Antwerp to study with Louis van Kuyck, a noted horse painter. Back in New York by 1872, Dolph found his farm scenes exciting little interest, so in 1880 he sold his studio contents and again sailed for Europe. He went to Paris where he studied for two years working on his figure painting skills. He also visited Rome during this time. Back in New York once more, Dolph turned to painting portraits, medieval genre scenes, and architectural studies.
However, the big turning point in his career occurred about 1875. As recounted in the same August 1898 issue of the Photo-Beacon, Mr. Dolph explains that one day the landlord came looking for the rent and he had no money to pay him. The artist went to a local auctioneer, asking him if he could sell some sketches for him. The auctioneer agreed, telling him to bring down whatever he had. As an afterthought, Dolph thought to bring along a pretty little frame that had cost him about $15. Dolph: “I thought - that frame will bring something, but I have nothing to fill it. A cat came tumbling into the room. Anything to fill this frame, and I painted the cat.” On the day of the sale, some of the pictures brought very little but Dolph felt sure the frame would at least recoup his $15 investment. Dolph again: “The bids began - $10, $15, $20 and up to $85 – more than all the rest four times over. I said to myself, ‘By the gods, if the people want cats they shall have cats!’” Realizing that these provided a guaranteed income, Dolph ultimately worked almost exclusively as the man considered to be the foremost painter of cats in America. Today’s art collectors appreciate cats as much as their predecessors did, as Dolph’s cat and dog paintings command a premium whenever they come up for sale.
Starting about 1875, he divided his time between his studio in Manhattan and a country home in Bellport, Long Island. It was at this summer cottage near the water where he found the perfect place to house and care for the steady stream of cats and kittens who would become models for his paintings. There, in his sparsely furnished studio, kittens and puppies were free to roll about and play while Dolph sketched their every move in charcoal. Because they couldn’t be photographed (they were too fast for cameras of the time), the artist and his wife Mary resorted to all kinds of tricks to pose the kittens, using caterpillars or toads or props to attract the cats’ attention. Dolph would make rough sketches of the kittens in a group and then he would draw each cat separately. These sketches were tacked all over his studio walls.
Dolph was an active member of the New York art scene. He helped to organize the Society of American Artists and he exhibited nearly every year at the National Academy of Design (missing only 1871 and 1881 when he was overseas). He was also a member of the Salmagundi Club, the Lotus Club, the Brooklyn Art Association, the National Academy of Design, and the appropriately named Kit Kat Club (of avant-garde artists). He exhibited at the Paris Salon (1882), the Exposition Universelle (Paris, 1889), the Boston Art Club, the Brooklyn Art Association, the Lotus Club, the National Academy of Design, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo (1901).
The painting is in very good condition. The painting appears clean with no craquelure or loose paint. Examined under blacklight there are scattered spots of inpainting or varnish retouch. None of this is located in the kitten or the cigar or the signature. Primarily one area at the top of the board plus a few smaller spots to the left, right and below the kitten (please see blacklight photo). There are some small, faintly visible surface stains to the right of the kitten – not sure what it is, but it appears to be on top of the paint layer. It is visible in the close up photos but hardly noticeable in person. On the reverse of the board is a Dolph inventory number “119” enclosed in a parallelogram as may be found on the back of many of his paintings. There is also a square area of residue from an old label. The frame bears a fragmentary label from J.H. Lewis & Son Frames, 1323 Broadway, New York. I believe the frame to be original to the painting; I have seen at least one other Dolph painting, the same size (a puppy) in an identical frame. It is an elaborate molded gesso frame which is in fair to good condition. There are scattered losses and it appears the frame has been overpainted in its past. There is some damage to the inner wooden liner to the right of the kitten. That being said, the frame in its current state has acquired a patina and has a nice old world feel. The painting presents well as it is in my opinion though the liner damage could be addressed if desired.
John Henry Dolph, oil painting on board, Kitten and Cigar