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Louis Wain: The King of Cat Art

 by danielle on 07 Jun 2014 |
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English artist Louis Wain was utterly obsessed with cats.
 
He became popular in the Victorian period for his adorable anthropomorphised cats and kittens, with large-eyes and sweet expressions. However, in the tradition of many great artists, Wain became rather mad in his later years, and his cat artworks became increasingly bizarre and abstract - but no less captivating.
 
Wain was born in Clerkenwell, London, in 1860, to a French mother and an English textile trader and embroiderer. He was the first of six children and the only boy – and out of all of them was the only one to marry. His chosen bride, much to the scandal of the neighborhood, was his sisters’ governess Emily. Such women were viewed as little more than glorified servants at the time and not only that, Emily was ten years older than the 23-year-old Wain.
 

It was thanks to Emily that Wain began to create cat art in earnest. Sadly she suffered from breast cancer only three years after they were married. It was a stray black and white kitten they named Peter, rescued after they heard him mewing outside one rainy night, who gave her joy in her illness.
 
Wain began to produce sketches of the cat to further lift her spirits and Emily enjoyed them so much she encouraged him to have them published. She did not live to see her husband’s work unveiled to the public, but as she had imagined, they were well received. He continued to create paintings and drawings of cats as he promised her.
 
Wain later said of Peter: "To him, properly, belongs the foundation of my career, the developments of my initial efforts, and the establishing of my work."

 
 Image credit

Wain's cats had a human-like range of expressions and did human-like things such as play musical instruments, serve tea, play cards, fish, smoke, enjoy nights at the opera and wear sophisticated clothing.
 
They became enormously popular and appeared in popular newspapers of the day such as The Illustrated London News, magazines, journals, greeting cards and postcards. Wain also illustrated a series of children’s books.
 

Such was his passion for cats, he became the chairman of the National Cat Club in 1898 and 1911 and was involved with animal charities such as the Governing Council of Our Dumb Friends League, the Society for the Protection of Cats, and the Anti-Vivisection Society. It was his hope to help improve the welfare and standing of cats in English society.
 
Despite his great celebrity, Wain suffered from poor finances throughout his life. He was responsible for supporting his five sisters and mother after his father’s death and possessing a naïve personality, often made poor business choices such as selling his pictures outright without retaining rights over their reproduction, and he invested unwisely in hair-brained inventions.
 
As he aged, Wain’s mental health began to deteriorate and his works became increasingly abstract, though he continued to depict cats.

 
 
It has been speculated he suffered from schizophrenia, whilst other experts believe he had Asperger’s Syndrome.
 
Whatever the case, by 1924, his sisters felt they could no longer cope with his erratic and sometimes violent behaviour and Wain was committed to the pauper ward of the Springfield Mental Hospital.

A year later, the public discovered his whereabouts and there were calls he be rescued from his situation by prominent celebrities of the day such as writer H. G. Wells. The Prince Minister Ramsey MacDonald personally intervened and Wain was transferred to the Bethlem Royal Hospital and later the Napsbury hospital. These were comparatively pleasant places to stay and he was given access to a garden and a colony of cats.

 
 

Wain continued to manifest erratic behaviour throughout the rest of his life, but never ceased painting his favourite felines. His once whimsical cats were now kaleidoscopic, fearsome creatures rendered in bright colours and intricate patterns. 

Wain passed away in 1939. H. G. Wells commented,  "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."

 
 
Wain faded from memory until the late 60s, when his works returned to fashion and suddenly became collectable again. Musicians Nick Cave, David Tibet and artist Tracy Emin are notable collectors of Wain’s cats.
 
Cave, who has been a fan since the 1970s, organised an Australian showing of his pieces in 2009 – the first showing of Wain’s work outside of England.  

 

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