It’s Day 38 and I got the keys to my very own house! How exciting is that? I also somehow painted a painting today! AND I was super duper excited about my artist. My friend Stefan reminded me of this artist and I was going to add him to a summer date and just couldn’t wait because I knew EXACTLY what I wanted to paint. Join me in celebrating Louis Wain!
Louis Wain (5 August 1860 – 4 July 1939) was an English artist best known for his drawings, which consistently featured anthropomorphized large-eyed cats and kittens. In his later years he may have suffered from schizophrenia (although this claim is disputed), which, according to some psychiatrists, can be seen in his works.
Louis William Wain was born on 5 August 1860 in Clerkenwell in London. His father was a textile trader and embroiderer; his mother was French. He was the first of six children, and the only male child. None of his five sisters ever married. At the age of thirty, his youngest sister was certified as insane, and admitted to an asylum. The remaining sisters lived with their mother for the duration of their lifetimes, as did Louis for the majority of his life.
Wain was born with a cleft lip and the doctor gave his parents the orders that he
should not be sent to school or taught until he was ten years old. As a youth, he was often truant from school, and spent much of his childhood wandering around London. Following this period, Louis studied at the West London School of Art and eventually became a teacher there for a short period. At the age of 20, Wain was left to support his mother and his five sisters after his father’s death.
Wain soon quit his teaching position to become a freelance artist, and in this role he achieved substantial success. He specialized in drawing animals and country scenes, and worked for several journals including the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, where he stayed for four years, and the Illustrated London News, beginning in 1886. Through the 1880s, Wain’s work included detailed illustrations of English country houses and estates, along with livestock he was commissioned to draw at agricultural shows. His work at this time includes a wide variety of animals, and he maintained his ability to draw creatures of all kinds throughout his lifetime. At one point, he hoped to make a living by drawing dog portraits.
At the age of 23, Wain married his sisters’ governess, Emily Richardson, who was ten
years his senior (which was considered quite scandalous at the time), and moved with her to Hampstead in north London. Emily soon began to suffer from breast cancer, and died only three years into their marriage. Prior to Emily’s death, Wain discovered the subject that would define his career. During her illness, Emily was comforted by their pet cat Peter, a stray black and white kitten they rescued after hearing him mewing in the rain one night. Emily’s spirits were greatly lifted by Peter, and Louis began to draw extensive sketches of their cat, which Emily strongly encouraged him to have published. She passed away before she could see this come to fruition for Louis, but he continued to create these cat sketches as a promise to his beloved Emily. He later wrote of Peter, “To him, properly, belongs the foundation of my career, the developments of my initial efforts, and the establishing of my work.” Peter can be recognized in many of Wain’s early published works.
In 1886, Wain’s first drawing of anthropomorphised cats was published in the Christmas issue of theIllustrated London News, titled A Kittens’ Christmas Party. The illustration depicted 150 cats, many of which resembled Peter, doing things such as sending invitations, holding a ball, playing games, and making speeches, spread over eleven panels. Still, the cats remain on all fours, unclothed, and without the variety of human-like expression that would characterize Wain’s later work. Under thepseudonym of George Henri Thompson, he illustrated numerous books for children by Clifton Bingham published by Ernest Nister.
In subsequent years, Wain’s cats began to walk upright, smile broadly and use other exaggerated facial expressions, and would wear sophisticated, contemporary clothing. Wain’s illustrations showed cats playing musical instruments, serving tea, playing cards, fishing, smoking, and enjoying a night at the opera. Such anthropomorphic portrayals of animals were very popular in Victorian England and were often found in prints, on greeting cards and in satirical illustrations such as those of John Tenniel.
Wain was a prolific artist over the next thirty years, sometimes producing as many as several hundred drawings a year. He
illustrated about one hundred children’s books, and his work appeared in papers, journals, and magazines, including the Louis Wain Annual, which ran from 1901 to 1915. His work was also regularly reproduced on picture postcards, and these are highly sought after by collectors today. In 1898 and 1911 he was chairman of the National Cat Club.
Wain’s illustrations often parody human behaviour, satirising fads and fashions of the day. 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. This gives medoubly nature, and these studies I think [to be] my best humorous work.”
Wain was involved with several animal charities, including the Governing Council of Our Dumb Friends League, the Society for the Protection of Cats, and the Anti-Vivisection Society. He was also active in the National Cat Club, acting as President and Chairman of the committee at times. He felt that he helped “to wipe out the contempt in which the cat has been held” in England.
Despite his popularity, Wain suffered financial difficulty throughout his life. He remained responsible for supporting his mother and sisters, and had little business sense. Wain was modest, naive and easily exploited, ill-equipped for bargaining in the world of publishing. He often sold his drawings outright, retaining no rights over their reproduction. He was easily misled, and occasionally found himself duped by the promise of a new invention or other money-making scheme.
He travelled to New York in 1907, where he drew some comic strips, such as Cats About Town and Grimalkin, for Hearst
newspapers. His work was widely admired, although his critical attitude towards the city made him the subject of sniping in the press. He returned home with even less money than before, due to imprudent investment in a new type of oil lamp.
Some speculate that the onset of Wain’s schizophrenia was precipitated by toxoplasmosis, a parasitic infection that can be contracted from cats. The theory that toxoplasmosis can trigger schizophrenia is the subject of ongoing research, though the origins of the theory can be traced back as early as 1953.
When his sisters could no longer cope with his erratic and occasionally violent behaviour, he was finally committed, in 1924, to a pauper ward of Springfield Mental Hospital in Tooting. A year later, he was discovered there and his circumstances were widely publicized, leading to appeals from such figures as H. G. Wells and the personal intervention of the Prime Minister. Wain was transferred to the Bethlem Royal Hospital in Southwark, and again in 1930 to Napsbury Hospital near St Albans in Hertfordshire, north of London. This hospital was relatively pleasant, with a garden and colony of cats, and he spent his final 15 years there in peace. While he became increasingly deluded, his erratic mood swings subsided, and he continued drawing for pleasure. His work from this period is marked by bright colours, flowers, and intricate and abstract patterns, though his primary subject remained the same. He is buried in his father’s grave at St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Cemetery, Kensal Green, London.
Read more of his biography at wikipedia.
So many cats…so little time. I am very happy that I came up with an idea of what cat I wanted to paint right away. I would’ve been overwhelmed that I didn’t paint cats doing ballet or tap-dancing or something absurd like that. I decided to paint keyboard cat! One of my favorite newly famous kitties! I hope you enjoy my Wain tribute as much as I enjoyed creating it. I feel it captures his spirit, but it also has a modern twist to it. 🙂 See you tomorrow on Day 39!