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Did Cats Drive This Painter Insane?

I wrote about the mad sculptor Messerschmidt last week, and in the comments one reader mentioned that his work reminded them of an English painter named Louis Wain (1860-1939) — who I then proceeded to look up, and become totally fascinated by. So here’s the story. Louis Wain was a man of some artistic talent, and he adored cats. While his young wife was gradually succumbing to illness over a period of several years, Wain often used the household cat, Peter, to amuse her, dressing him up in glasses and making it seem as if he were reading the paper, just for chuckles. He began to draw Peter, of whom he would later say “To him properly belongs the foundation of my career, the developments of my initial efforts, and the establishing of my work” — and indeed, many of his early published drawings and paintings are of the family cat. In the beginning, his work was more or less naturalistic, like the above.

After his wife passed away, he became more and more obsessed by cats. His furry subjects were often anthropomorphized in cutesy ways — in fact, he seemed almost incapable of drawing human beings. He wrote, “I take a sketch-book to a restaurant, or other public place, and draw the people in their different positions as cats, getting as near to their human characteristics as possible.” If that’s not an indication of early-onset weirdness, I don’t know what is. In any case, his cats-doing-people-stuff work got him a lot of attention, and he became something of a national sensation, with his drawings reproduced on cards and posters.

He was a cat activist too, and a card-carrying member of the National Cat Club, the Cat Protection League, and the wonderfully-named Our Dumb Friends League. Meanwhile, see below. Aww!

In the 1910s and 20s, things took a turn for the worse. His behavior became increasingly erratic. In 1924, his sisters committed him to the pauper’s ward of a mental asylum. He languished there for a year until a newspaper article was written about the deplorable conditions he was forced to endure, and when big-name fans came out of the woodwork — H.G. Wells said “English cats that do not look and live like Louis Wain cats are ashamed of themselves” — he was moved to a much more pleasant asylum, where he lived for another ten years or so before passing away. In that time, he began to paint and draw again, and though his subject was the same as ever, his increasingly bizarre style seemed evidence of some mental disorder, possibly schizophrenia. (One theory, which some still ascribe to, is that he contracted and was driven mad by toxoplasmosis, a parasite that lives in cat poop.) Today, his early and late work are used in psychology textbooks to illustrate the progress and effects of schizophrenia.

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November 9th, 2010

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Stranger to the World

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