Though I prefer dogs, I cannot help but love Louis Wain’s cats—those beautiful playful paintings of wide-eyed felines that slowly evolve (disintegrate?) into psychedelic creatures of the electric night. Wain’s strange and wonderful paintings have led to considerable speculation over their genesis—with the oft-cited suggestion these pictures show Wain’s gradual psychosis and descent into schizophrenia.
Louis Wain was born into a working class family in Victorian England in 1860. He was born with a cleft palate which meant he was kept off school for a considerable part of his childhood. When he did eventually go to school, he spent most of his time playing truant wandering the city people watching. He graduated from the West London School of Art and became a teacher. When his father died, Louis became the family’s chief breadwinner. He decided to make his living as an illustrator—winning commissions from some of the most popular of London’s magazines. He had his own style and wit. He produced satirical cartoons and illustrations of cats in various human situations: playing golf, singing opera, having a tea party, singing carols, eating cake. He explained the inspiration for his work:
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. This gives me doubly nature, and these studies I think my best humorous work.
Despite his success, Wain was always in financial difficulties. This was mainly down to his own naivety—his work was exploited, used and stolen by various unscrupulous individuals he rather foolishly trusted. This wasn’t his only problem.
When he was thirty, his sister was committed to an insane asylum—it was the first rumble of the fate that was to befall Wain. He continued providing for his mother and sisters working endless painstaking hours on his illustrations. The work took its toll that saw him spend long seasons in asylums suffering from psychosis and schizophrenia.
News of his circumstances were publicized by H.G. Wells, who organized the funds to move Wain into a more suitable hospital where he could recover with his colony of cats. The Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald also personally intervened on Wain’s behalf.
There has been some speculation that Wain’s schizophrenia was caused by toxoplasma gondii—a parasite found in cat’s excreta. Whatever began his illness, Wain was incarcerated in various asylums and mental hospitals for years at a time. The changes to his life were reflected in his art. His paintings of cats took on a radiance and vitality never before seen: the fur sharp and colorful, the eyes brilliant, with a wired sense of unease of disaster about to unfold.
But these paintings look normal compared to the psychedelic fractals and spirals that followed. These beautiful images—startling, stunning, shocking—suggest a mind that has broken reality down to its atomic level.
Though it is believed that Louis Wain’s paintings followed a direct line towards schizophrenia, it is actually not known in which order Wain painted his pictures. Like his finances, Wain’s mental state was erratic throughout his life, which may explain the changes back and forth between the cute and cuddly and the abstract and psychedelic. No matter, they are beautiful, kaleidoscopic, disturbing and utterly mesmerizing.
Louis Wain died just prior to the Second World War in 1939.
Beginning in the late 60s, Wain’s work came into fashion again and has become sought after by collectors. In 2009 Nick Cave, a Wain enthusiast since the late 1970s, organized the first showing of Wain’s work outside of England when he exhibited his work as part of the All Tomorrow’s Parties concert series in Australia. Artist Tracy Emin and musician David Tibet are also prominent collectors of Wain’s work.