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'He who plays with cats gets scratched’ – in other words, he who looks for trouble will get it. This is an old Dutch motto that appears to be a possible source for Judith Leyster’s cheerful picture, and it’s been suggested that the painting was intended as both delightful entertainment and a warning.
In other Dutch morality pictures of the time, a little girl would have been expected to show a good example; this one has an older brother to lead her astray. She has a wicked twinkle in her eye and the fingers of her hand curl round the cat’s tail, ready to give it a tug. Leyster has captured the boy’s half-guilty, half-unashamed expression as he teases the cat – he seems to be testing just how far he can go.
‘He who plays with cats gets scratched’ – in other words, he who looks for trouble will get it. This is an old Dutch motto that appears to be a possible source for Judith Leyster’s cheerful picture. Children’s activities were commonly used in Dutch seventeenth-century painting to point out the bad behaviour of adults, and it’s been suggested that Leyster’s picture was intended to serve as both delightful entertainment and a warning.
In Dutch morality pictures of the time, a little girl would be expected to show a good example. While the girl in this picture may look straight out at us, holding up a warning finger in case you plan something naughty, she has an older brother to lead her astray. She has a wicked twinkle in her eye and the fingers of her other hand curl round the cat’s tail, ready to give it a tug.
The boy has tempted the cat to come to him using an eel, but he holds it up enticingly out of reach. The cat’s ears are pricked up in discomfort and anger, and the boy has to hug the animal hard to keep it prisoner. He looks up with a cheeky grin, at some unseen adult perhaps. Leyster has captured his half-guilty, half-unashamed expression – he seems to be testing just how far he can go.
Leyster has chosen dark, sombre colours for the costumes and background to show up the fresh complexions, sparkling eyes and lively expressions of the children. As was the custom in Holland at the time, they are dressed like mini-adults. The girl’s collar and bonnet and the boy’s scarf are beautifully white and clean, and their hair is neat and tidy. The brim of the boy’s spectacular hat is caught up jauntily at one side in the new fashion. Although they are up to mischief, they are clearly the offspring of a prosperous, middle-class family – which is unusual for a picture of this kind. Badly behaved children were most often shown as from the underprivileged classes, though usually with affection and sympathy (look at Two Boys and a Girl making Music, for example).
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