An amazing woman artist that many may not know about is the Dutch artist Henriette Ronner-Knip; She is famous for her many wonderful paintings of dogs and cats.
Henriette Ronner-Knip came from a family of artists. At an early age, she became in charge of the family’s finances and other legal obligations, so she started to paint. She sold her first painting at the age of 15-year-old. Later, when she was married, Her husband became her manager, and Henriette continued to paint. She is famous for her many wonderful paintings of cats and dogs. She chooses to paint dogs and cats as a subject matter because during the Victorian era, having a pet in your household was popular.
Henriette Ronner Knip – Early Life
Henriette was born in Amsterdam in 1821 into a family of artists. She received her very first painting lessons from her father, Josephus Augustus Knip. Her grandfather Nicolas Frederick Knip was also an artist. So it can be said that she was truly born in a family with a long history of painting and choosing art as their profession.
Her mother, Pauline Rifer de Courcelles, was also a painter. She painted a lot of birds. She was her father’s first wife, but it is said that her father was already living with his mistress Cornelia van Leeuwen (1790-1848). Because of this, Cornelia is usually credited with being Henriette’s mother.
It can be said that Henriette did not have a typical upbringing for her time. Josephus was an art instructor, so they often moved to find work-giving art lessons. In 1823 her father became blind in one eye. In 1824 he finally divorced his first wife, Pauline, and he married Cornelia. By 1832 her father was completely blind.
In 1835, at the age of 14 years old, Henriette was in charge of the family’s finances and other legal obligations, so she began to paint seriously to help the family bring in income. She sold her first painting at the age of 15 years old. Henriette had a lot of financial and other obligations placed upon her at a very young age. In 1840 the family settled in Berlicum, Holland.
Marriage and Move to Amsterdam
In 1848 Cornelia died, so Henriette moved to Amsterdam, where she continued to paint farm animals, forests, and other scenes from nature. She painted first in watercolors and then later changed to paint in oil paints. She became active in many artistic circles and organizations, such as the Arti et Amicitiae, a Dutch Artist Society founded in 1839.
In 1850 she married Feico Ronner, and they moved to Brussels. Feico was often ill and could not be regularly employed, so he became Henriette’s manager. But also once again, Henriette found herself as the main financial supporter of the family.
Painting Dogs and Cats
After her marriage to Feico, Henriette also narrowed her subject matter to paint almost entirely dogs and cats. We are not sure if we did this because she loved animals or saw an opportunity to provide the rich Victorians with paintings of the animals. But it would seem she must have had a love for animals as her paintings show a woman who understood them very well.
Later in life, Henriette had a house with a garden where she kept hunting dogs, cats, and a parrot that she would use as her models. To be an artist of animals, she had also to study them. She would study their behaviors and then make paper sculptures of the animals in various poses and positions. Then with the use of props, she would put them together with furniture and other fabrics.
She took the study of her animal subjects she painted very seriously. She constructed a specially built glass-fronted studio where her cats could freely run about, sleep, and get into trouble as most cats do. This would allow her to observe them and paint their behavior as she saw them. This is also one reason why even today, her paintings appeal to so many people for their timeless ability to understand our pets’ nature, especially cats.
After the 1870s, at the age of 49, she painted some of her most important works. To put this into perspective, she would have been a professional painter then for over 35 years.
After this time period, some of her most famous paintings were of some lapdogs, including one belonging to Maire Henriette of Austria and Princess Marie of Hohenzollern-Sigmarigen. She was also very famous for the long-haired cats that she placed in very bourgeois settings.
Besides painting what must have been full-time, Henriette was also a wife and mother of six children. Several of her children also became artists. Her son Alfred was a famous Belgian painter, graphic artist, and illustrator. Her daughter Alice specialized in still life paintings of fruit and flowers. Her daughter Emma painted some cats and other subjects.
Henriette died in 1909 at the age of 88 years old. She was a woman who was ahead of her time, as she was a full-time painter and the family’s breadwinner. She must have had an amazing family and work-life balance.
The Victorians Love for Dogs and Cats
One reason why Henriette painted so many dogs, cats, and other animals is that the Victorians had a great love for dogs, cats, and other pets. So it would be natural that many pets would also be shown in paintings, or a painting of your pet could be an important part of the Victorian decor.
For those of us who are animal lovers, we have the Victorians to thank as they changed our attitude towards having domestic animals such as dogs and cats as pets. Jane Hamlett, professor of modern British history at Royal Holloway, University of London, and Professor Julie-Marie Strange at the University of Durham, has been leading a study on pets’ history, particularly in the Victorian Era. Professor Hamlett has said:
In the late 18th and 19th Centuries, it became more culturally acceptable to have a pet like a cat or a dog. It was artists like Henriette that almost assigned a new moral value to animals. This is because she painted them in almost human poses. The cats on a piano like they are getting a piano lesson or cats around musical instruments
One of the reasons for this is that people during the Victorian era began to be very interested in home life. They also saw pets as a way to help train and teach their children. Professor Hamlett continued to say:
Having a pet was just not limited to the rich. Many poor or working-class families would capture a wild bird like a blackbird and put it in cages hanging outside their windows. They would then feed the bird scraps from their table.
Pedigree dogs were trendy during the Victorian time as they were a sign of wealth (you could afford to keep a dog) and were known to have a lot of good Victorian cultural values as being loyal and courageous.
Rabbits were also popular as a boy could build a small rabbit hutch to keep the rabbits in and take care of them. The wealthy families would import wild parrots or monkeys from the territories and keep them as pets.
Cats were also popular but not as popular as some other animals. Many people also saw cats as a pet and as an animal to help keep the mice and vermin out of the house and other places.
Many Victorian painters painted cats as their main subject matter or placed cats in a part of their paintings. You can read our blog 15 Paintings Featuring Cats, My Top Picks by clicking here.
Pets started to become such an integrated part of Victorian life. Pet cemeteries were popular, as was the start to manufacture pet food and medicine produced specifically for animals.
When you look at this history of pets in the Victorian era, you can more fully understand why a painter like Henriette would concentrate on painting animals in scenes that seem almost human.
When you think about an artist who understood cats and dogs and other animals, you should think about Henriette Rooner-Knip and her uncanny way of painting the animals, especially cats, in positions and poses like no one else does. She was a woman painter whose artistic work is as important today as it was during her lifetime.
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