Clare Turlay Newberry, from the insert in "Cats, a Portfolio," published by Harper & Brothers...Copyright 1943
(Photo shared by Clare's daughter, Felicia)
Clare Turlay Newberry was born in Enterprise, Oregon, but spent most of her childhood in Vancouver, Washington. As a small child she worshiped cats, and when she began to draw at the age of two, kittens were her favorite subject. As she grew older she planned to be a writer and illustrator of children's books, and after a year at the University of Oregon she spent two years in art schools in Portland and San Francisco. Later she went to Paris, where she studied another two years and wrote and illustrated her first picture book, Herbert the Lion, which was the expression of her own childhood desire to have a lion for a pet.
Herbert the Lion is illustrated with naive line drawings and HERBERT himself is a purely decorative and imaginary lion. It was not until Mrs. Newberry returned to San Francisco in 1932 that it occurred to her that it was possible to draw real lions. She now began to sketch the big cats ad the Fleishhacker Zoo, and found them far more exciting models than human beings.
The following year she went to New York to live, and here for the first time she began to draw and paint domestic cats from life. Also she continued her study of the big felines at the Central Park and Bronx zoos.
MITTENS, published inn 1936, established her reputation as a painter of cats. In the five years after the publication of HERBERT THE LION a complete change had taken place in her technique. The MITTENS illustrations, although strongly decorative in feeling, give an astonishingly realistic effect of life and fur. No one else had ever painted such convincing kittens. the book became a best seller and was chosen one of the Fifty Books of the Year by the American Institute of Graphic Arts. It has since been translated into several languages.
BABETTE, published the following year, contains some of the artist's best work. Here the sinuous charm of the Siamese cat is expressed with an economy of means seldom seen in occidental art. She is surer of her drawing than in MITTENS, and less preoccupied with realistic detail.
Since then Mrs. Newberry has written and illustrated a series of books about cats which has made her work widely known both here and abroad. She had her first one-man show in 1940 at the Arden Gallery. she has continued to concentrate on the cat family and hopes eventually to paint all its members, wild as well as domestic.
Her method of working requires endless patience, for cats do not hold still to be drawn. Before attempting finished work she devotes several months to daily sketching of the subject to be portrayed, making hundreds of action sketches in pencil, pen-and-ink, charcoal, Conte' crayon, and pastel. This enables her to memorize the characteristics of the cat so completely that she can finally, without referring again to the model, execute a series of water colors that are actual portraits of the animal.
Her water colors are usually monochrome paintings with a slight touch of color, and are done with great rapidity on soaking wet paper. The apparent ease and spontaneity of their execution, however, is the end result of many repetitions of the same design, each composition starting as a more or less realistic representation and gradually becoming organized into a satisfying rhythmic pattern. After perhaps a hundred repetitions the final design is executed in one continuous rhythmic movement.
Mrs. Newberry's debt to the Orient is obvious, but her third-dimensional quality is distinctly Western, as is her interest in the personality of her subjects. There is nothing impersonal about a Newberry cat - each one is an individual, whose characteristic facial expressions and markings are of intense interest to her. She loves the subtle tonal gradations of the body of a Siamese or a puma, the rich pattern on the coat of an ocelot or tabby short-hair, the jewel-like contrast of a feline eye. She is, in a word, obsessed with the wild beauty of the cat tribe, and feels that a lifetime is all too short a period in which to try to do justice to it.