Art for Cat People: Louis Wain's Life, Paintings & Schizophrenia

Peter, Louis Wain's Favorite Real-Life Cat

Peter, Louis Wain's favorite cat, enjoys a garden tea party.
Peter, Louis Wain's favorite cat, enjoys a garden tea party.

Louis Wain's Cat Art & Schizophrenia

Louis Wain, a modern artist from Britain, first achieved fame for his cheery and anthromorphic cat art. Eventually he also served as an example of how schizophrenia might alter a person's perception or influence their creativity. Wain's art stands out today partly because it reflects his progressive schizophrenia.

I first saw Louis Wain's cat paintings on a poster for schizophrenia medication. When the drug advertisement is removed, this is what remains:

The Evolution of Wain's Art with Schizophrenia

A Louis Wain Landscape Painting

"Blue Tufted Bird and Beard Irises"
"Blue Tufted Bird and Beard Irises"

Wain's Early Years

Louis Wain was an English artist born in 1860. Because he had a cleft lip that attracted negative attention, his parents were advised to keep Louis from formal schooling until age 10. He spent his truancy wandering the streets of London but eventually enrolled in the West London School of Art.

Wain's adulthood was rife with beauty and tragedy. After briefly working as a teacher at the London art school, Wain left at age 20 to care for his widowed mother and his younger sisters. He fortunately found quick success as a freelance illustrator for popular magazines. Initially he painted pastoral scenes of English landscapes and livestock.

An Early Wain Cat Painting

Peter Wain knitting
Peter Wain knitting

The Turn to Cats

Louis Wain's turn to cat art was inspired several years later by his wife Emily when she developed cancer. Emily was especially find of cats. When she fell ill, Wain amused his wife by painting their cat Peter wearing spectacles, reading books and otherwise behaving like a human. 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."

Emily passed away after only three years of marriage when Louis was 26. That year, a collection of 150 Louis Wain cat paintings was published in the Illustrated London News as a special Christmas issue. Peter was prominently featured.

Wain's cats in happier times
Wain's cats in happier times
A disturbed Wain kitty
A disturbed Wain kitty

Louis Wain's Mental Breakdown

Louis Wain was especially prolific over the next three decades. He illustrated about 100 children's books and scores of other publications including the Louis Wain Annual, a magazine published from 1901-1915. He briefly lived in New York City and was well-received.

However, by late 1907 he began showing signs of schizophrenia. The condition may have been triggered in part by a series of defeats. One defeat involved a great financial loss: the artists had invested in oil lamps although the light bulb had been invented. Next, he lost his mother. This was likely a major component of his breakdown. Additionally, some people have speculated that toxoplasmosis, a parasitic infection spread by cats, might be linked to his mental disease.

Whatever the reason, family and friends state in numerous biographies that Wain had become incoherent and showed excessive paranoia.

By 1924 Wain was telling doctors that he could perceive electromagnetic fields and auras. His perception is shown in the painting to the right.

Around this time, Wain's sisters became unable to care for him at home. He spent his remaining years in hospitals. He regarded the Napsbury Hospital north of London as most pleasant: It had gardens and a colony of cats.

Wain lived at Napsbury for 15 years. He painted cats and floral scenes until his final days.

Today his work is highly collectible. Simple 9"x12"photos are sold at high prices. Inexpensive reprints of Louis Wain's art can be found in the books shown below.

Thanks for stopping by. If you liked this article, please share it with other cat lovers.

Louis Wain

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Comments 14 comments

InterestCaptured profile image

InterestCaptured 4 years ago

Very interesting artist, makes you wonder about the connection between psychadelics and schizophrenia. . .


SantaCruz profile image

SantaCruz 4 years ago from Santa Cruz, CA Author

Definitely! It's like psychedelic art.

I also want to follow up on the possible toxoplasmosis connection.

Thanks for taking the time to comment :).


Hilaree May 4 years ago

I really enjoyed this article! His early paintings, especially the "garden party" and the "knitting craze" are so whimsical. His "blue tufted bird" painting reflects a lovely outlook of life. How sad that this illness caused his later paintings and end of life to be so disturbed.

Thanks for a fascinating insight in to this man's works.


SantaCruz profile image

SantaCruz 4 years ago from Santa Cruz, CA Author

Thanks, Hilaree May! "Whimsical" is the perfect word. I really like Wain's color choices too. Very happy palettes.

His life story would make a great film, bittersweet all the way through...


Keri Summers profile image

Keri Summers 4 years ago from West of England

This really caught my eye because, believe it or not, my parents own a pair of original Louis Wain kitten sketches. When I was a child, we moved into an old Victorian cottage, which was sold with its dusty old contents, and that's where the sketches were found. The kittens have the playful facial expressions seen in his paintings. But I didn't really know about Louis Wain's life - it's sad but fascinating. Good Hub!


SantaCruz profile image

SantaCruz 4 years ago from Santa Cruz, CA Author

Keri Summers with the Victorian cottage and cat art, you have a charmed life! I wonder if your parents' Wain sketches have been published or are unknown to most? Very cool either way :). Thx for the comment.


Keri Summers profile image

Keri Summers 4 years ago from West of England

Hi SC, I don't believe they have been. My parents are now divorced, and I don't know who got custody of the cats. Perhaps one of my brothers has them. I'll ask and if I can find them I'll write a Hub about what we found in our old house, use them to illustrate, and link to your Hub here if that okay? That would be cool.


SantaCruz profile image

SantaCruz 4 years ago from Santa Cruz, CA Author

Keri, that's a cool idea for a hub & I'd be happy to get linked :). Meow.


Perry the Cat profile image

Perry the Cat 4 years ago from Mouskin, Texas

It is so interesting how mental state affects perception and how that perception is portrayed in art. It makes me think of Vincent Van Gogh and Edvard Munch. Imagine seeing things the way they were seeing them. It would scare the hell out of me.


SantaCruz profile image

SantaCruz 4 years ago from Santa Cruz, CA Author

Perry, thanks for stopping by & commenting. I like to see a cat who engages in perspective-taking.

Glad to see that you're a contented cat. The disturbed Wain kitty above looks much like my cat when she's unsettled.


Perry the Cat profile image

Perry the Cat 4 years ago from Mouskin, Texas

Glad to do it. I'm pretty laid back most of the time. It's mostly birdies that tick me off.

And republicans.


SantaCruz profile image

SantaCruz 4 years ago from Santa Cruz, CA Author

Lol! Perry, you would like one of my cats. She wrote "Cat Revolution: The Feline Solution." Will post it sometime.


Perry the Cat profile image

Perry the Cat 4 years ago from Mouskin, Texas

That would be a treat. One of my campaign slogans in 2008 was "Time for the feline paradigm"


InterestCaptured profile image

InterestCaptured 4 years ago

Despite the mental handicap, I feel that his art still continued to progress in a positive manner as time went on. The pictures become incredibly intricate and you can tell he has a thorough understanding of fractal geometry. Sometimes the worst times bring the best art.

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