Cosmetic Vessel in the Shape of a Cat

Period: Middle Kingdom

Dynasty: Dynasty 12, early

Date: ca. 1990–1900 B.C.

Geography: From Egypt

Medium: Travertine (Egyptian alabaster), copper, quartz crystal, paint

Dimensions: h. 14 (5 1/2 in.); l. 13.7 cm (5 3/8 in.); w. 6.2 cm (2 7/16 in.)

Credit Line: Purchase, Lila Acheson Wallace Gift, 1990

Accession Number: 1990.59.1


Egyptians are credited with the domestication of a number of animals, including the cat, which first appears in painting and relief toward the end of the Old Kingdom (ca. 2300 B.C.). This cosmetic jar is the earliest known three-dimensional image of a cat. Egyptian artists were very observant of the world around them, and their representations of animals are detailed and lifelike. In this jar, which is essentially a statuette, the sculptor demonstrates a keen understanding of the creature's physical traits, giving it the alert, tense look of a hunter rather than the elegant aloofness seen in later statuettes. The impression of readiness is enhanced by the inlaid eyes.

The eyes are made of rock crystal with drill holes at the back that were filled with pigment, creating a startlingly lifelike impression. The eye sockets were lined with copper, which corroded to form a heavy green rim. The body of the cat was hollowed out and would have held some sort of scented oil or unguent.