A great artist can change the way the world views a subject! When it comes to cats in art, Louis Wain was the artist that made us all see the human side of cats. Even today, artists are inspired by his work. This Victorian Era artist turned his love of cats into a phenomenon.
Title Image: Louis Wain, work in Public Domain
The Early Life of Louis Wain
“Those with feelings wondrous kind, Can love with felines ever bind.”- Louis Wain
Louis Wain was born on August 5, 1860, in Clerkenwell in London, England. He was the only brother to 5 younger sisters. His sisters would live at home and never marry.
Born with a cleft lip, doctors told Wain’s parents that he would not be able to go to school or be taught until he was 10 years old. Even after trouble with truancy in school, Louis Wain found his way into the West London School of Art where he studied art. Eventually, he became a teacher there.
At the age of 20, Wain’s father passed away, leaving him to be the man of the house. He soon gave up teaching to become a freelance artist. The career change proved to be a very successful one. He made a good money on his drawings of animals and country landscapes. Always an animal lover, Wain had always wanted to make a living painting portraits of dogs.
Quite a scandal at the time, Louis Wain married his sister’s private tutor, Emily Richardson, when he was 23 years old. She was 10 years older than him. Not long after the marriage, Emily fell ill with breast cancer.
To make Emily smile, Wain began drawing the stray cat (Peter) that the couple kept as a pet. It was unusual during this time period for people to keep cats as house pets. Cats were still seen more like a farm animal – a necessity to keep rodent populations under control. Emily loved the cat drawings and made him promise to continue drawing the cats. She died only 3 years into their marriage.
Cat Art Gets a Makeover
“He has made the cat his own. He invented a cat style, a cat society, a whole cat world. English cats that do not look and live like Louis Wain cats are ashamed of themselves.” – H.G. Wells
Little did Emily know that her promise would inspire the art that would be her husband’s legacy. Louis Wain kept his promise to continue drawing cats. Wain became known all over Victorian London for his cats.
At first, Louis Wain created very realistic portraits of cats, but slowly a new personality emerged. In 1886, Wain drew A Kittens’ Christmas Party for the Illustrated London News, in which he portrayed his first anthropomorphic cats. These cats with human characteristics were a big hit!
Over time Wain’s cats became more and more human-like. He said that he would go find people doing things around town (like sitting at a restaurant) and draw them as cats. Wain’s art showed cats standing upright, wearing clothing, drinking tea, smoking, playing musical instruments, play cards, and more. He was very prolific; Louis Wain illustrated more that 100 children’s books and his drawings appeared in many other types of publications.
Louis Wain did not just draw cats, he truly loved them. He had this to say about Peter, the cat that had first inspired him:
“To him, properly, belongs the foundation of my career, the developments of my initial efforts, and the establishing of my work.”
Wain was involved with several different animal charities around London and had twice been the chairman of the National Cat Club (1989 and 1911).
An Unhappy Ending
“Not a drain of milk left for these poor kittens’ tea, For the cook was so greedy, and drank it you see.” – Louis Wain, Kitten Book
Unfortunately, Louis Wain was not a very good businessman. People took advantage of his money and duped him into bad investments. He didn’t seem to know how to properly barter with companies for royalties on his work. Even after a cartooning job in New York City, Wain found himself back and home living with his sisters and without much money to show for his work.
Mental illness took its toll on Louis Wain later in life. Eventually, his fits and outbursts became too much for his sisters to manage so they had him placed in the poverty ward at Springfield Mental Hospital in 1923. The conditions were so bad there that Wain’s predicament became the talk of the town. Author H.G. Wells, a fan of Wain, and Prime Minister Ramsey MacDonald personally paid to have him relocated.
Wain spent his last 15 years at Bethlem Royal Hospital. There was a garden and a group of cats for him to enjoy in the new hospital. He continued to draw until his death.
Was it Schizophrenia?
“I consider that my boyish fancy did much towards my future artistic life, for it taught me to use my powers of observation, and to concentrate my mind on the details of nature which I should otherwise never have noticed.” – Louis Wain
There is a lot of controversy over Louis Wain’s mental illness. He is most popularly described as having had schizophrenia. A psychiatrist lined up a series of Wain’s drawings to show how they were affected as the schizophrenia developed. It appears that Wain’s cats went from whimsical figures to kaleidoscopic monsters. Others claim that schizophrenia can not be proven by this series of drawings because we do not know which order they were painted in.
An alternative theory is that Wain may have been suffering from Asperger’s Syndrome. Sometimes people with an Autism disorder will have what is known as visual agnosia. This means that the visual processing part of their brain is not functioning properly and so they have difficulty recognizing objects even though their vision is fine. These people describe objects as blurs of color, lines, and details that have no meaning.
Wain’s later drawings could be his way of trying to make sense of the shapes and colors he was seeing without being able to identify the objects visually. Interestingly, Wain’s artistic technique never degraded as one would see in a patient suffering from schizophrenia. Even his last pieces of art were craftily done.
Have you seen Louis Wain’s work before?