John PERCEVAL, Boy with cat 2 Enlarge 1 /1

John PERCEVAL

Bruce Rock, Western Australia, Australia 1923 – Melbourne, Victoria, Australia 2000

  • England 1963-65

Boy with cat 2 [Boy with a cat; Boy with cat II; Boy with cat No. 2; Boy with cat 2: Boy and cat] 1943 Place made: Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
Materials & Technique: paintings, oil on composition board Support: reverse side of composition board

Primary Insc: signed and dated u.l., oil "Perceval/ April 43"
Dimensions: 59.0 h x 43.8 w cm framed (overall) 660 h x 510 w x 25 d mm
Acknowledgement: Purchased 1970
Accession No: NGA 70.55
Image rights: Courtesy John Perceval / Ken McGregor

John Perceval painted Boy with cat 2 when he was 20. It is a cry from the depths of the soul. Painting expressively and with psychological insight, the artist reflected the intense frustrations of childhood, recalling his own difficult early years. The work is also connected with the collective psyche of a generation that had grown up in the shadow of the Depression into an adulthood in wartime Melbourne.

In the painting, a young blond boy is being viciously clawed by a wild cat, his own clenched hands suggesting that this creature might also be a mirror or metaphor for the torments of the inner self. The tension is emphasised by the way the pair, locked in a terrifying embrace, is trapped in a shallow, stage-like setting—a fitting backdrop to the idea of inescapable fate. It is a potent image of deep-seated isolation, fear and repressed anger.

There are few images of children in the history of art that match the intensity and psychological complexity of Perceval’s Boy with cat 2, and it is not surprising that this work has become widely considered an icon of 1940s Melbourne painting.


Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Ron Radford (ed), Collection highlights: National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2008

John Perceval painted Boy with cat 2 when he was 20 years of age. It is a cry from the depths of the soul. Painting expressively and with psychological insight, the artist reflected the intense frustrations of childhood, recalling his own difficult early years. The work is also connected with the collective psyche of a generation that had grown up in the shadow of the Depression into adulthood in wartime Melbourne.

In the painting, a young blond boy is being viciously clawed by a wild cat, his own clenched hands suggesting that this creature might also be a mirror or metaphor for the torments of the inner self. The tension is emphasised by the way the pair, locked in a terrifying embrace, is trapped in a shallow, stage-like setting—a fitting backdrop to the idea of inescapable fate. It is a potent image of deep-seated isolation, fear and repressed anger.

There are few images of children in the history of art that match the intensity and psychological complexity of Perceval’s Boy with cat 2, and it is not surprising that this work has become widely considered an iconic painting of 1940s Melbourne.


Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2014
From: Collection highlights: National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2014

Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man.[1]

Portraits of children often create a nostalgic aura around the idea of childhood, casting these formative years in a rosy glow. Idyllic portraits of children, posed in comfortable rooms or playing in gardens, accompanied by tame, loyal family pets, abound in the history of art. John Perceval turns this romantic notion on its head with his terrifying image Boy with cat 2. Here the boy is locked in a wretched embrace with a wild cat. With sharp claws bared, extended tail bristling and demonic red eyes, the feline creature looks up at the boy who has his eyes shut tight; his face contorted in pain. Gradually, as we contemplate this image, we realise that the cat is inseparable from the boy—a projection of his own tortured state of mind.

Perceval created astonishing expressive images in the 1940s. Like his friends Arthur Boyd, Sidney Nolan, Joy Hester and Albert Tucker, he was concerned about the fate of humanity during the war years, and was able to express anxieties in personal and universal ways. The emotive tenor of Boy with cat 2 recalls the German Expressionists, while the shallow stage set echoes the surrealist artist, Giorgio de Chirico.

Personal childhood memories also play a part. When Perceval was only eighteen months old, his parents’ marriage broke up and his mother departed the family home. A sense of early abandonment along with memories of his father’s violent outbursts informed his emotional and artistic landscapes. For instance, Perceval was traumatised by his father’s insistence that his small son and daughter decapitate chickens on the farm for the family meal. The difficulty of coordination for a child ‘holding a live neck in the left hand while landing an axe with the right’ was a chilling memory.[2] In Boy with cat 2 the creature rising up epitomises a desperate struggle for physical and emotional survival. Perceval’s affliction with polio as a teenager cast another long shadow.

Later in life Perceval battled with alcoholism and psychological disturbance that may partly be related to his early experiences. The intense power of Boy with cat 2 was undoubtedly informed by a depth of feeling that both points to Perceval’s own circumstances and transcends them. He reminds us that childhood is often fraught with difficulty; fodder for great art but often far from the proverbial bed of roses.

Deborah Hart

[1] Jesuit motto based on words passed on from Saint Francis Xavier (1506–1552).

[2] T Allen, John Perceval, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, 1992, p 11


Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Anne Gray Australian portraits 1880–1960 National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2010

John Perceval painted Boy with cat 2 in 1943, when he was 20. It is a cry from the depths of the soul. Painting expressively and with psychological insight, the artist reflected the intense frustrations of childhood, recalling his own difficult early years. The work is also connected with the collective psyche of a generation that grew up in the shadow of the Depression, crossing the bridge into adulthood in wartime Melbourne when discussions raged about human beings’ capacity not only to destroy others but also to self-destruct in the process.


Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Anne Gray (ed), Australian art in the National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2002