Cats are one of the many animals that Liu Kuiling painted during his long and successful career. Before the Republican era, when Liu was active, cats had often been painted in China as domestic animals. Liu creates a new setting for the cats: the natural environment of a large rock, which lies in between two lotus flowers in a pond.
Liu got his passion for painting animals from being raised in the suburbs of Tianjin. Through his observation of animals in the countryside, he was able to closely sketch and paint his animal subjects. Cats would be one of the subjects that Liu would have closely examined to get at true zoological details. Most of his cat paintings seem to be of a specific breed of cat, one which he may have closely grown up with. He may be alluding back to his childhood where he experienced his encounters with the cats, or it may be because the artist reflects himself closely with the characteristics of the breed. These paintings can therefore be read as a personal reflection by the artist, as he had been attached to these cats for most of his life.
In this particular painting, Liu uses precise detail to render each of the cats as they look up towards a dragonfly. The dragonfly has caught them by surprise -- as displayed by the facial expression of the orange cat. The expression makes this painting unique from Liu’s other cat paintings; it adds character to the cat. Its facial expression is bold, with eyes brightly lit with a yellow gloss, and its gaze firmly concentrated on the dragonfly. The painting conveys suspense through the orange cat as if it is ready to pounce on the dragonfly. The black cat seems to be aware of the dragonfly but only seems interested in observing it. The expressions of the cats, in sum, seem to portray the characters of the cats by how they react to their surroundings.
Yet it would be wrong to think of facial expressions as anthropomorphized renderings of the cats; rather the expressions help the viewer create a narrative about a playful moment between two cats. The lotus above the cats is so grand that it makes it seem as if a gramophone player has grown out in nature. We can imagine that the dragonfly interrupted the cats listening to the sounds of nature. In doing so, the dragonfly shocks the orange cat, resulting in the aggravated expression.
Inscription: 丁亥春日耀辰刘奎龄繪 Translation: Yaochen, Liu Kuiling painted in Spring, 1947
Seal: 蝶隱 Dieyin