As with almost all genres of art, the contributions of women have usually been overshadowed by their male colleagues. One woman who produced wonderfully stylish dressed-up cats – and other animals – in humorous scenes is Austrian writer and animal illustrator Käthe Olshausen-Schönberger. She is now largely forgotten, which seems a great shame.
One thing that makes her work hard to track down is that she used multiple names during her career: Käthe Schönberger, Katharina von Dombrowski, Käthe von Dombrowski, Baroness von Dombrowski, and the initials KOS. It’s almost as if she had nine lives.
Her career was also as varied as her monikers. Her writing included novels as well as film and radio scripts. Her graphic work included book illustrations and advertising. She translated from English and Romance languages and was involved in political causes.
While some illustrators are known almost exclusively for their cat-toons, Käthe’s output is more mixed and her anthropomorphic scenes in many ways are reminiscent of J.J. Grandville’s style and content. Her cats tend to be dignified women, often the victims of lecherous or disapproving gazes of other animals. They also appear as fierce suffragettes and in random roles as servants. The humor is often quite dry and satirical.
Born in 1881 in Mödling, Austria as Katharina Ludovika Schönberger into a German-Jewish family she had no art training. But remarkably, Käthe was only fifteen when she illustrated ‘Aus Thier und Menschenleben’, in which she first drew anthropomorphic animals.
Sometime before 1900, she began, as was typical for the era, making cartoons for an illustrated paper, in this case “Fliegende Blätter” (Flying Leaves).
Some of her most well-known animal images come from “The Mirror of the Animal World” (Im Spiegel der Tierwelt), with four editions published between 1901 and 1919. Another early work “Noah’s Political Ark” (Die politische Arche Noah) from 1916 continued with animals in human situations. During this time she also illustrated a book of fables.
Her talent didn’t go unnoticed. In Leipzig in 1914, she earned the Bugra silver medal for illustration. The award name is a mix of the words “Buchgerwerbe” (book traders) and “Graphik” (graphic works).
While Käthe is generally considered Austrian, she lived all over and spent many of her productive years in the United States. She was born in 1881 in Hinterbrühl, a market town in Lower Austria, and grew up in a coastal town in what is now Croatia. By the age of 14 she was in Berlin, where she began making a name for herself with bookplates and animal illustrations, despite not having any formal art training.
He world travels continued when she married Franz Olshausen, a German diplomat, around 1900. This led to her going to Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil. She gave birth to Joern, who would later become a biochemist, in 1903 in Argentina. She and her husband also lived in Munich, Berlin, and New York.
The couple split sometime around 1920, and Käthe spent most of her time in New York, working in radio and translating. She lived in the U.S. from 1925 to 1951.
Her involvement in politics included participating in Norwegian humanitarian and explorer Fridtjof Wedel-Jarlsberg Nansen’s 1922 campaign for famine relief in post-war Russia. She was in good company as Albert Einstein, Herman Hesse, Käthe Kollwitz, Sigmund Freud, H.G. Wells and other notables of the time also helped out in the effort. Nansen won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1922 for his efforts to help the people of Russia.
She had a brief second marriage to painter Karl Ritter von Dombrowski, and this led her to signing her work with a new last name for a while. The marriage didn’t last long and produced no children.
Her focus from 1930 shifted more toward prose, with essays, novels, and stories, which were published mainly in German.
One exception was “Land of Women: Tale of a Lost Nation” a fictionalized tale of dictatorship in South America. She had hoped to publish it in German in 1933 as a warning of the rise of Fascism. It wasn’t published until 1935, and only in the U.S. and Britain.
She returned to Austria in 1951 and remained there until she passed away in 1967 (in some records 1st January 1968) in Graz.