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

Henk Visch, The stolen painting

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

Art and History Museum

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

Art & History Museum

This Japanese print transports us to a brothel in the famous Tokyo district of Yoshiwara. This district of sensual pleasure was located a little outside the city. The view shows the rice fields of Asakusa at dusk, with the sun setting behind Mount Fuji. The scene is reminiscent of the Rooster festival, which can be seen in the background. This was a day of celebration in the district, as courtesans were exceptionally allowed to receive one client during the day. From the window sill, the cat is the silent witness of a client's afternoon visit. The latter has given the courtesan a set of new hairpins, which are lying on the floor. The woman remains invisible, we imagine her behind the screen on the left. The packet of handkerchiefs on the floor indicates that she has finished with the client. All these details do not bother the cat, who does what cats do best: stare out the window, unperturbed.

Where can you view it? : Cabinet des Estampes. On request.

Art & 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).

Art et Marges Museum

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

Royal Museum of the Armed Forces and Military History

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).




Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium

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 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!