The cat has been domesticated since ancient times. Of the genus Felis, the common (and as we’ll discover, uncommon) house cat, Felix Sylvestri (wherever did those cat names come from?), has been the visual inspiration for untold centuries of artists, from the tombs of the Pharaohs to contemporary society. For Chuck Jones it began with one cat called Johnson.
Johnson entered the Jones household one foggy morning in 1918, carefully picking his way through the sand at Balboa, to stand looking up at their home requesting admission. “He moved into our house that morning, bag and baggage. The bag was that cat bag all cats live in, one of the few characteristics he shared with other cats. He sat fat and walked thin like other cats, but the resemblance to other cats stopped there,” reminisces Chuck Jones in his autobiography, Chuck Amuck. “His baggage was what appeared to be a very old, very used tongue depressor, fastened securely about his neck…bearing the crude inscription…Johnson.”
Chuck Jones recalls that morning because he realized that it marked a turning point in his perception of character and one of the most important lessons of animation: individuality. Johnson demonstrated for Jones that it is the individual, the oddity and peculiarity of character that counts. In response to the question, “Why do animated cartoonists use animals?” Jones has said that it is easier and more believable to humanize animals than to humanize humans.
The Cat Portfolio is a limited edition collection of 9 cats drawn by Chuck Jones over a 50-year period. The ten fine art reproductions on paper (one cat is seen in x-ray as well) that comprise the portfolio are led off by a drawing of Johnson, jauntily wearing three-quarters of a grapefruit rind on his head like a space helmet. “On such occasions he seemed to enjoy this raffish adornment and would saunter out onto the sand, often with only one eye visible under the overhang, a curious sight to many people, a delight to our family, and a source of sheer terror to small dogs and old ladies,” Jones continues in his autobiography. And if that weren’t enough, Johnson liked to swim in the ocean, too.