Posted by: thedawsonrewatch | December 6, 2012

Louis Wain- Painter of Cats


First let me say, I fallen victim to the “Dracula Effect” and now wish that I was writing my final paper about Wain, is it too late?

Louis Wain was born in Clerkenwell, London in 1860. The oldest of six children. At the age of 20 he became a freelance artist to support his mother and sisters following the death of his father. His specialties were illustrations of animals and country scenes. Wain found work with several London Journals including “The Illustrated London News.”

At 23, Wain married his sister’s governess, Emily, who also happened to be ten years his senior. (ESCANDALO!) Tragically, Emily was ill with what would turn out to be breast cancer and within three years of their union, she would be dead. During her illness, Wain began to draw pictures of their adopted stray kitten to cheer her up. It was around this time that Wain would begin to experiment with anthropomorphised cats. 



Over the next several years Wain would produce hundreds of images in a variety of forms including hundreds of children’s books, post cards, cartoons, and paintings. Wain was also heavily involved in Animal Charity Societies.

In the early 1900s, following a trip to America to do some work for Hearst publishing, Wain began to exhibit symptoms of a mental disorder. He suffered from delusions, became hostile, slept little, and spent long periods locked in his room. Eventually diagnosed with Schizophrenia, his sisters could no longer care for him and he was committed to the Springfield mental hospital.

Wain’s paintings done during this time are now frequently referenced by psychologists as examples of psychological deterioration. Wain’s focus shifted from making the cats look human to the cats themselves and then to shapes, lines and colors that obscure almost any recognizable vision of a cat




  1. I love the last image, it is beautiful and it does remind me of the Cheshire cat.

  2. Wow, this blog was absolutely fascinating! I love the expressions on their faces, especially the ones that ‘smile’ like the Cheshire cat. Also, it is humorous how the two cats are playing golf. That reminds me of the game of croquet at the end of ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’. Thanks for the interesting and fun read!

  3. What is particularly interesting is his choice of obsession: the cat. In 19th century art, cats were used as metaphors for female sexuality, often in the guise of a playful kitten frolicking at a young girl’s feet to hint at the fleeting nature of her innocence and give us a glimpse of the mature woman she would become. Could Wain have had this in mind as he painted his cats? I am very curious as to what made Wain identify so closely with felines, that he would pursue them to such extent through his art over the course of his career. After the death of his wife, did the kitten become an object of fixation, and his cat paintings a product of that fixation? Did cats, being tied to the female, come to symbolize his late wife? There are countless possible interpretations and it would be very interesting to hear an analysis from someone with a background in psychology who could decipher how the devolution–or evolution?–of Wain’s paintings showed his own descent into Wonderland.

  4. When you mentioned this in class I actually knew exactly what you were talking about– I’d seen these pictures out of context and had no idea what decade they were produced in. I’d just seen it around the internet.
    On that note, I’d already associated them with Bryan Lewis Saunders’ “Drugs” series: in which he alters his mind intentionally to produce self-portraits.
    I’m not sure I like his work– he’s obviously very privileged and in a position wherein he can risk associating himself with drugs in a fairly extreme way. But it does remind me of the history of using drawing as a measure of altered perception (i.e. recent lsd testing in the 1950s, Ken Kesey, etc.) and sanity and I wonder if it was ever explicitly used to monitor hysteria– especially since we’ve seen a fair measure of women drawing. It would make sense if so.

  5. This post in conjunction with Keenan’s link to the drug-induced art by Bryan Lewis Saunders has prodded me into thinking again about where art comes from. Although some writers and other artists live lives as sane as can be expected in such a maddening world, it cannot be denied that many artists either seem to exhibit internal crazy tendencies or tend to seek that “craziness” through whatever mind-altering substance they decide is most beneficial for their art. One obvious example of the latter to me is Coleridge, who took opium–I think “Kubla Khan” emerged from an opium-inspired dream. Of the former kind, I always think of Virginia Woolf. She suffered from debilitating breakdowns, and her suicide note to her husband began with “Dearest, I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times. And I shan’t recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can’t concentrate.” It may be a silly association, but I have always linked in my head the development of her own extraordinary take on stream of consciousness to these voices that she heard. This version of stream of consciousness is most masterfully explored in “Mrs Dalloway,” in which the narration dips fluidly in and out and through the minds of a chorus of characters. Was this multiple-minded stream of consciousness, this hydra of voices contained in one narration suggested to her by the many voices she sometimes heard in her own head? We can’t be sure. But in “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: Manic Depression and the Life of Virginia Woolf,” Peter Dally proposes that “Virginia’s need to write was, among other things, to make sense out of mental chaos and gain control of madness. Through her novels she made her inner world less frightening. Writing was often agony but it provided the ‘strongest pleasure’ she knew.” Many writers claim that they write to battle a darkness, whether that is personal pain or mental anguish. Drug-induced states always seemed to me to be a way for some people to reach a similar altered state of mind from which to create. Is that darkness necessary to create? Are the minds of all artists somehow altered–is that where creativity comes from? The tortured artist stereotype is certainly around for a reason. I’ve always found it a little odd that what our culture perceives as some of the most perceptive comments about life came from people who perceived the world a little differently.

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