Two Children Teasing a Cat

Annibale Carracci (Italian, Bologna 1560–1609 Rome)

Oil on canvas
26 x 35 in. (66 x 88.9 cm)
Credit Line:
Purchase, Gwynne Andrews Fund, and Bequests of Collis P. Huntington and Ogden Mills, by exchange, 1994
Accession Number:
  • Gallery Label

    Painted with a directness and spontaneity that looks forward to nineteenth-century art, this picture is among the earliest Italian genre paintings. In its handling of light it recalls the work of Venetian artists. The painting may illustrate a saying, similar to local proverbs that appear in a 1618 compilation, such as "Let sleeping dogs lie" and "Don’t go poking around vipers." The picture belonged to the Ranuzzi family. Subsequently it was owned by Cardinal Tommaso Ruffo (1663–1753), who also owned Velázquez’s Juan de Pareja.

  • Catalogue Entry

    Annibale's painting of "Two Children Teasing a Cat" is an important genre painting by one of the central figures of European painting. Apparently five or six years later in date than his famous "Bean Eater" (Galleria Colonna, Rome), it may date about 1587–88, following a trip to Venice (Benati 2006). The brushwork and handling of light seem to recall the work of Veronese, but are at once bolder and more direct, with many passages painted wet into wet. It is this directness and informality that associate the work strongly with the Carracci emphasis of working directly from life. That said, the picture is not a straightforward depiction of a real-life scene—something Annibale saw somewhere and merely recorded on his canvas. The action it portrays is perfectly believable, and the two children—perhaps a brother and his little sister—may even have posed for Annibale, who would have drawn out their features in chalk or, slightly less likely, in a rapid-fire oil sketch. The act of teasing a cat with a crayfish was surely meant to convey a moral lesson, in the vein of a popular proverb, and Annibale has consciously situated the painting within a well-known north Italian tradition canonized in Vasari's "Lives of the Artists", a copy of which the Carracci owned. Annibale must have had in mind a celebrated work by the sixteenth-century female artist Sophonisba Anguissola of Cremona. Vasari tells us that Michelangelo was shown a drawing by Sophonisba of a child laughing. He admired it, but suggested that it would be even more difficult—and thus praiseworthy—to show a child crying. (The concept of difficulty—"difficoltà"—was central to Renaissance aesthetics.) Sophonisba's response was to draw one of her young sisters maliciously offering her infant brother the dubious delights of a basket with crayfish, one of which has, predictably, fastened its pincers on the boy's finger. The girl laughs; the boy cries. The drawing was clearly intended to respond to Michelangelo's challenge, but it did so by adding a further layer, for it includes both a crying and a laughing figure, thus giving brilliant demonstration to Sophonisba's mastery of contrasting physiognomic expressions. Annibale seems to play on this idea: by conspicuously placing the girl's hand on the ledge in front of the orange tabby, he suggests that the outcome of teasing the cat will be someone getting scratched, thereby turning the girl's delight to tears. Rather than emphasize contrasting physiognomic expressions, he allows the narrative to unfold in front of us: the conclusion is implied rather than depicted. The viewer is thus differently involved. The moral lesson was probably in the vein of the popular admonishment about letting sleeping dogs lie, a version of which appears in G. C. Croce's 1618 publication of popular sayings ("non andar svegliando il can che dorme"). Such a moralizing subtext would have brought the picture into line with the kinds of works approved by the reforming Cardinal archbishop of Bologna, Gabriele Paleotti, who had reservations about art that did not have an uplifting, moral function. Annibale has appropriated the studio practice of the oil sketch and combined it with rich brushwork he learned from Venetian painting to create a picture at once seemingly spontaneous and finished.

    The picture enjoyed considerable fame. A version of the composition, ascribed to Agostino Carracci, was in the Farnese collection. The MMA painting can be traced back to the collection of Count Girolamo Ranuzzi (1611–1667), a member of a prominent Bolognese family who owned a palace outside the Mirabello Gate in Bologna. Interestingly, when in 1671 its purchase was recommended to Leopoldo de' Medici in Florence, it was described as "well preserved and well done, but not in that really finished manner" ("ma non di quella maniera finita finite"). It remained with the Ranuzzi family until purchased by the papal legate to the city, Tommaso Ruffo, who amassed an impressive collection that included the Metropolitan's painting by Velázquez of Juan de Pareja. Annibale Carracci's picture appears in the printed 1734 catalogue of the Ruffo collection and was purchased in 1776 by William Hamilton for his nephew Charles Greville. From 1810 until 1944 it hung at Castle Howard (Christiansen 2000).


  • Technical Notes

    Because the Metropolitan's picture has often been considered a version or copy of a lost picture (Posner 1971 and Robertson 2008) and, alternatively, has been ascribed to Agostino Carracci, it is important to emphasize the unlikelihood of either proposal. During cleaning of the picture in 2010, it became clear that the cat was differently painted (the first set of stripes can be partly seen through the transparent layers of paint on his back leg) and differently posed. The head was initially lower and the proper right paws higher. The cat's proper right ear was initially vertical; this change is clearly recorded in the x-radiograph and is also visible as a swatch of orange color on the surface upon close examination. Throughout, the picture is painted with a directness that is contrary to the work of a copyist or even of someone such as Agostino painting a variant composition. The way the brush is dragged over the surface to create the exposed edge of the girl's shirt; the touches of red to suggest the ribbon around her bun; the quick—indeed, hasty—description of the folds in the pink sleeve of her garment—done wet into wet—or the frothy brushwork of the white collar of the boy all indicate a painter of consummate confidence and accomplishment, but someone working in an informal mode [see Images]. This really can only be Annibale—but at a later moment from the famous "Bean Eater" (Galleria Colonna, Rome), which is a more finished as well as more elaborately conceived picture.


  • Provenance

    conte Girolamo Ranuzzi, Palazzo Mirabello, Bologna (until d. 1667; inv., 1667, without attribution); conte Camillo Ranuzzi Manzoli, Palazzo Mirabello, Bologna (1667–d. 1678; inv., 1679, no. 9, as by Annibale Carracci); the Ranuzzi family (from 1678; probably sold to Ruffo); Cardinal Tommaso Ruffo, Ferrara and Rome (by 1734–d. 1753; inv., 1734); Litterio Ruffo, duca di Baranello, Naples (1753–d. 1772); Vincenzo Ruffo, duca di Baranello, Naples (1772–76; sold through Sir William Hamilton to Greville); Hon. Charles Francis Greville, London (1776–d. 1809; his estate sale, Christie's, London, March 31, 1810, no. 67, for £65 to Howard); Frederick Howard, 5th Earl of Carlisle, Castle Howard, North Yorkshire (1810–d. 1825; cat., n.d., no. 125; inv., 1825); the Earls of Carlisle, Castle Howard (1825–1911); Hon. Geoffrey William Algernon Howard, Castle Howard (1911–d. 1935; his estate, 1935–44; his estate sale, Christie's, London, February 18, 1944, no. 16, for £84 to Katz); [Katz, from 1944]; sale, property of a gentleman, Sotheby's, London, July 7, 1976, no. 107, for £14,000; sale, Sotheby's, London, December 11, 1991, no. 20, bought in; sale, Sotheby's, London, April 20, 1994, no. 48, as Attributed to Agostino Carracci, to MMA

  • Exhibition History

    Cremona. Museo Civico Ala Ponzone. "Pittori della realtà: le ragioni di una rivoluzione da Foppa e Leonardo a Caravaggio e Ceruti," February 14–May 2, 2004, unnumbered cat. (p. 240).

    New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Painters of Reality: The Legacy of Leonardo and Caravaggio in Lombardy," May 27–August 15, 2004, no. 69.

    Martigny. Fondation Pierre Gianadda. "The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York: Chefs-d'œuvre de la peinture européenne," June 23–November 12, 2006, no. 3.

    Bologna. Museo Civico Archeologico. "Annibale Carracci," September 22, 2006–January 7, 2007, no. II.14.

    Rome. Chiostro del Bramante. "Annibale Carracci," January 25–May 6, 2007, no. II.14.

  • References

    Inventario di tutti li mobili esistenti nell Pallazzo di Bol.a dell già Ill.mo S.re Co. Girolamo et hora dell'Ill.mo S.re Co. Camillo Ranucci Mang.oli suo Figliolo. August 26, 1667, f. 5r [Archivio di Stato, Bologna, Fondo Pepoli, Serie VI eredità 8 Ranuzzi-Manzoli . . . Rogato di Carlo Ant.o Mandini no. 334 Lib. H 26 August 1667 (a second, less legible copy of the inventory exists in the Archivio di Stato, Bologna, no. 4863)], as "due figure et un gatto," without attribution.

    Letter to Leopoldo de' Medici. January 1671 [Archivio di Stato, Florence, Carteggio d'Artisti XIII: Lista di Anonimo a Leopoldo de' Medici, carta 272; published in Ref. Mazza 1993, p. 421].

    Annibale Ranuzzi. Letter to Leopoldo de' Medici. January 10, 1671 [Archivio di Stato, Florence, Carteggio d'Artisti XIII: Lista di Annibale Ranuzzi a Leopoldo de' Medici, carta 275; published in Ref. Mazza 1993, p. 421], lists it as part of Camillo Ranuzzi's collection; values it at 1,500 lire and describes it as "un contadino, una fanciulla e un gatto," by Annibale Carracci.

    Compra di Gianbattista Savoia da Co. Camillo Ranuzzi Manzoli di vari pezzi di Pitture di buoni Maestri per L 4000 così valutate. December 24, 1671 [Archivio di Stato, Bologna, Rog.to di Lorenzo Garoffali No. 350 Lib. H, Fondo Pepoli, Serie VI eredità 8 Ranuzzi-Manzoli], lists it as "Il Quadro del Gambaro del Sig. Anibale Carazza con sua cornice dorata," with a value of 1,500 lire.

    Inventario delli Mobili, Stabili, Robbe, beni, Crediti, Debiti, e Scritture, che si sono ritrovati al tempo della morte del Quondam Ill.mo Sig. Co. Camillo Ranuzzi Manzoli . . . . January 27, 1679, no. 9 [Archivio di Stato, Bologna, Scritti div. Segn. orig. XLVII, no. 34, f. 189; original copy is in Archivio di Stato, Bologna, Notarile Garofali, 6–17: 27 January 1679], lists it as "scherzo del gatto, e Gambaro d''Annibale Carazza'," with a value of 400 lire; includes a copy of the picture under no. 55.

    Jacopo Agnelli. Galleria di pitture dell'emo, e rmo principe, signor cardinale Tommaso Ruffo vescovo di Palestrina, e di Ferrara, ecc.: Rime, e prose. Ferrara, 1734, pp. 60–61, lists it and includes a poem celebrating the vivid realism of the scene.

    Marcello Oretti. unpublished notes. 1760–80 [Biblioteca Comunale di Bologna, ms. 125, vol. 3, fol. 688; published in Ref. Robertson 2008], describes this work in the Ruffo collection in Naples.

    Sir William Hamilton. Letter to Charles Greville. August 2, 1774 [published in "The Hamilton & Nelson Papers," vol. 1, 1893, in "The Collection of Autograph Letters and Historical Documents formed by Alfred Morrison," 13 vols., London, 1883–97, letter no. 37], describes negotiations with the Baranello family regarding the purchase of this painting; refers to it as by Annibale and calls the character of the boy and girl "vulgar, but finely touched".

    Sir William Hamilton. Letter to Charles Greville. December 20, 1774 [published in "The Hamilton & Nelson Papers," vol. 1, 1893, in "The Collection of Autograph Letters and Historical Documents formed by Alfred Morrison," 13 vols., London, 1883–97, letter no. 40].

    Sir William Hamilton. Letter to Charles Greville. January 30, 1776 [published in "The Hamilton & Nelson Papers," vol. 1, 1893, in "The Collection of Autograph Letters and Historical Documents formed by Alfred Morrison," 13 vols., London, 1883–97, letter no. 62], writes that he has succeeded in buying this picture from Baranello for Greville.

    Sir William Hamilton. Letter to Charles Greville. March 17, 1776 [published in "The Hamilton & Nelson Papers," vol. 1, 1893, in "The Collection of Autograph Letters and Historical Documents formed by Alfred Morrison," 13 vols., London, 1883–97, letter no. 71], writes that it has been shipped to Greville.

    Catalogue of the Collection of Castle Howard. n.d., no. 125 [see Ref. Waagen 1854].

    Inventory of Castle Howard. 1825, unnumbered.

    [Gustav Friedrich] Waagen. Treasures of Art in Great Britain. London, 1854, vol. 3, p. 325, quotes from a printed Castle Howard catalogue in which our picture is listed as no. 125 and described as a 'very animated and humorous' work by Annibale Carracci [see Ref. Carlisle n.d.].

    Roberto Longhi. "Annibale, 1584?" Paragone, 89th ser., 8 (May 1957), p. 39, pl. 23, dates it 1583–84, grouping Annibale's genre images around the years of the "Mangiafagioli" (Galleria Colonna, Rome).

    Donald Posner. Annibale Carracci: A Study in the Reform of Italian Painting around 1590. New York, 1971, vol. 2, p. 78, no. 184[R], rejects the attribution to Annibale; suggests that it might be a variant of a picture listed as by Agostino Carracci in a 1680 inventory of the Palazzo del Giardino, Parma [see Notes].

    Gianfranco Malafarina in L'opera completa di Annibale Carracci. Milan, 1976, p. 128, no. 162, ill., includes it with "Further attributed works".

    Mira Pajes Merriman. Giuseppe Maria Crespi. Milan, 1980, p. 208 n. 14, referring to the citation to this painting when it was in the Ruffo collection [see Ref. Agnelli 1734], includes it among lost paintings by Annibale.

    Carlo Knight. Hamilton a Napoli: Cultura, svaghi, civiltà di una grande capitale europea. Naples, 1990, pp. 71, 73, discusses Sir William Hamilton's efforts to purchase this painting from the Baranello family in Naples in the mid 1770s [see Refs. Hamilton 1774 and 1776].

    "Rapporti con il mercato emiliano." Il Cardinal Leopoldo. 2, Milan, 1993, vol. 1, p. 421, doc. 625, publishes excerpts of letters to Leopoldo de' Medici [see Refs. Ranuzzi 1671 and Unknown 1671].

    Daniele Benati. Letter to Keith Christiansen. May 16, 1994, suggests a date of about 1590, tentatively attributing it to Annibale on the basis of similarities with the artist's frescoes in the Palazzo Magnani, Bologna.

    Andrea Bayer. "Cremona, Vienna and Washington: Sofonisba Anguissola and Her Sisters." Burlington Magazine 137 (March 1995), p. 202, relates it to a drawing of a boy bitten by a crayfish by Sofonisba Anguissola (Museo di Capodimonte, Naples).

    Daniele Benati. "Un San Sebastiano di Annibale Carracci da Modena a Dresda." Nuovi studi 1 (1996), p. 110 n. 8, rejects Longhi's date of 1583–84 [see Ref. 1957] and suggests the painting is closer to the time of the decoration of the Palazzo Magnani (ca. 1589–90), in which he detects similarities to the head of the girl in the MMA picture.

    Lubomír Konecny in "I cinque sensi da Aristotele a Costantin Brancusi." Immagini del sentire: I cinque sensi nell'arte. Exh. cat.n.p., 1996, p. 37, fig. 14 (color), attributes it to Agostino or Annibale Carracci and suggests that it might represent the sense of touch.

    Kim Sloan in Ian Jenkins and Kim Sloan. Vases & Volcanoes: Sir William Hamilton and His Collection. Exh. cat., British Museum. London, 1996, p. 84, suggests that Hamilton visited the Baranello collection in Naples in 1769 with his nephew Charles Greville, for whom Hamilton later negotiated the purchase of this painting.

    Franco Paliaga and Bram De Klerck. Vincenzo Campi. Soncino, 1997, pp. 156, 158 nn. 30, 31, fig. 50, attribute it to Annibale; erroneously refer to the painting recorded in the Ranuzzi collection in 1671 [see Ref.] as a different work from the MMA picture, and note that "both" paintings match the description of the Farnese version [see Notes].

    Christie Brown. "The Art World's Costly Game of 'Whodunit'." Wall Street Journal (August 7, 1998), p. W12, ill. (color).

    Fabio Chiodini. "Scena pubblica e dimensione privata a Bologna fra XVI e XVII secolo." Bologna al tempo di Cavazzoni: Approfondimenti. Bologna, 1999, p. 146.

    Fabio Chiodini. Letter to Keith Christiansen. February 21, 1999, states that it was part of Camillo Ranuzzi's collection, housed in the Palazzo di Mirabello, inventoried in 1678.

    Keith Christiansen. "The Historiography of a Once (and Future?) Annibale Carracci." Studi di storia dell'arte in onore di Denis Mahon. Milan, 2000, pp. 123–31, figs. 1–3 (overall and details), attributes it to Annibale and accepts Benati's dating of about 1590 [see Ref. 1994]; traces the provenance of the picture in detail; believes that a painting of two youths by Burrini in the Galleria Campori, Modena, shows the influence of this picture.

    Angela Ghirardi in Vincenzo Campi: Scene del quotidiano. Exh. cat., Museo Civico di Cremona. Milan, 2000, pp. 98, 101 n. 62, fig. 14, attributes it to Annibale and dates it slightly before 1590.

    Fabio Chiodini. "Un vago sito per ambìti quadri: la collezione e la residenza dei Ranuzzi Manzoli fuori Porta Lame." Il Carrobbio 27 (2001), pp. 91–92, 95, 101 n. 11, ill.

    Andrea Bayer in Painters of Reality: The Legacy of Leonardo and Caravaggio in Lombardy. Exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 2004, p. 11, fig. 10 (color detail) [Italian ed., "Pittori della realtà: le ragioni di una rivoluzione da Foppa e Leonardo a Caravaggio e Ceruti," (Milan), 2004, pp. 22–23, fig. 9 (detail)].

    Keith Christiansen in Painters of Reality: The Legacy of Leonardo and Caravaggio in Lombardy. Exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 2004, p. 176, no. 69, ill. (color) [Italian ed., "Pittori della realtà: le ragioni di una rivoluzione da Foppa e Leonardo a Caravaggio e Ceruti," (Milan), 2004, pp. 240–41, ill. (color)].

    Linda Wolk-Simon in Painters of Reality: The Legacy of Leonardo and Caravaggio in Lombardy. Exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 2004, p. 199 [Italian ed., "Pittori della realtà: le ragioni di una rivoluzione da Foppa e Leonardo a Caravaggio e Ceruti," (Milan), 2004, p. 201].

    Keith Christiansen. "Going for Baroque: Bringing 17th-Century Masters to the Met." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 62 (Winter 2005), pp. 17, 19–20, 26, 41, fig. 13 (color).

    Katharine Baetjer in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York: Chefs-d'œuvre de la peinture européenne. Exh. cat., Fondation Pierre Gianadda. Martigny, 2006.

    Daniele Benati in Annibale Carracci. Exh. cat., Museo Civico Archeologico, Bologna. Milan, 2006, pp. 89, 120–21, no. II.14, ill. (color).

    Mary Sprinson de Jesús in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York: Chefs-d'œuvre de la peinture européenne. Exh. cat., Fondation Pierre Gianadda. Martigny, 2006, pp. 36–38, no. 3, ill. (color).

    Aidan Weston-Lewis. "The Annibale Carracci Exhibition in Bologna and Rome." Burlington Magazine 149 (April 2007), pp. 258–59, assigns it to the Carracci workshop.

    Clare Robertson. The Invention of Annibale Carracci. Cinisello Balsamo, Milan, 2008, p. 44, colorpl. 3a, calls it a copy after Annibale and dates the [lost] original to the early 1580s.

    Babette Bohn. "Review of Ref. Robertson 2008." Renaissance Quarterly 62 (Winter 2009), p. 1290, agrees with Robertson's rejection of Annibale's authorship.

    Keith Christiansen in Philippe de Montebello and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1977–2008. New York, 2009, p. 37.

  • Notes

    A painting identical in subject and ascribed to Agostino Carracci is included as no. 507 in an inventory of about 1680 of the Farnese collection in Parma (published in Giuseppe Bertini, "La Galleria del Duca di Parma," Bologna, 1987, p. 257). The dimensions given for that work are 1 braccio 1 oncia high by 11 oncie wide (or about 59 x 50 cm [in Parma the braccio was equivalent to 54.5 cm]). There is no mention of the Farnese painting in later inventories.

  • See also
    In the Museum
    Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History