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The Cat Paintings of Louis Wain, and Other Great Pictures of Cats in Art
Cat fight by Louis Wain
The Man Who Painted Cats
Louis William Wain was the eldest of six children. Born in Clerkenwell, London in 1860 to an English father, and a French mother, he was to become famous for his many drawings, paintings and illustrations of cats. His father was in the textile trade, and provided a financially secure home for the family, all of whom were girls apart from Louis. Little Louis was born with a cleft lip, and doctors advised a delay in commencing his education, but eventually he was schooled, and his precocious artistic talents were encouraged and given room to develop.He finished his formal education at the West London School of Art, where he was later to become a teacher.
The Wain girls, however, were educated at home by a governess, Emily Richardson, and despite a ten year age gap, Louis became very fond of her. Eventually, at the age of 23, he proposed marriage. After their wedding, the couple moved to Hampstead in north London. but their happiness was to be short-lived. Emily soon became ill with cancer, and died after just three years of marriage. Louis was devastated.
Louis Wain was always a most prolific artist, and throughout Emily's illness he continued to draw and to paint. Seeing how much comfort his wife's cat, Peter gave her during her last weeks, Louis sought to divert her further by dressing the cat up, and drawing him in amusing situations, such as wearing glasses, or pretending to read. Soon these illustrations became something to do in the sad days after Emily's death. He later wrote of Peter, " To him properly belongs the foundation of my career, the development of my initial efforts, and the establishing of my work."
Cat With a Cigar by Louis Wain
Wain's career as a Cat Artist begins
The death of Louis's father, three years before Louis's marriage to Emily Richardson, placed an additional burden on his shoulders. The Wain girls remained resolutely single, and all stayed at home with their mother, apart from the youngest, who was eventually admitted to an insane asylum at the age of thirty. Louis became the male head of the family, and was obliged to work hard at his chosen profession in order to help support them all.
Teaching was soon abandoned in favour of work as a freelance artist. He contributed to both the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, and to the Illustrated London News, but it was his humanised cat illustrations that were to direct the path of his future career. The first such drawing appeared in the Christmas edition of The Illustrated London News in 1886, and was entitled 'A Kittens' Christmas Party'. This early drawing featured cats who were still cat-like, but who were taking part in human activities. Later, as Wain developed his theme, his cats began to walk upright, often wearing sophisticated contemporary clothing, and their faces became increasingly expressive.
Cats on the Green by Louis Wain
From children's book illustrator to a descent into insanity
Wain's work earned him great popularity, and he was soon highly sought after as a children's book illustrator, initially publishing under the pseudonym George Henri Thompson. In 1901 the first Louis Wain Annual appeared, and this ran from 1901 to 1915. In 1907 he was invited to travel to New York where he produced the comic strips 'Cats About Town', and 'Grimalkin' for Hearst newspapers. Unfortunately, however, despite considerable acclaim, and a steady flow of commissions, Louis Wain returned to the UK in bad shape financially.
During Wain's absence abroad, his mother had succumbed to Spanish 'flu, and the loss of his mother seems to have marked the beginnings of a slow descent into serious mental health problems. Eventually, when his sisters could no longer cope with his hostile and erratic outbursts, they had him committed to the pauper ward of Springfield Mental Hospital in Tooting. Later, after the intervention of several well-known figures including H.G.Wells, Wain was transferred firstly to the Bethlem Royal Hospital in Southwark, London, then in 1930, to Napsbury Hospital near St Albans, Hertfordshire, where he lived until his death in 1939.
Colourful Cat by Louis Wain
Schizophrenia or Aspergers? We'll never know for sure
Louis Wain's later work was characterized by bright colours and abstract patterns, and some psychologists have suggested this increasing abstraction to be symptomatic of schizophrenia. Other specialists believe that he may have suffered from Asperger's Syndrome. My own view is that the failing eyesight associated with old age possibly brightened his pallet, but the abstraction may well have had it's origins in his psychological problems. Certainly he was a unique talent, and will not easily be forgotten.
Cat's Christmas by Louis Wain
Cat mosaic excavated from Pompeii
And now for something completely different
Cats have been men's companions for thousands of years, as is evidenced by this striking mosaic which was excavated from the ruins of Pompeii. This is a fierce looking cat. one who would stand no nonsense, I suspect.
Detail from the Papyrus of Hunefer
From the Book of the Dead
The papyrus of Hunefer was found in the tomb of the scribe Hunefer in Thebes. It dates from the 19th Dynasty, about 1285 BC, and may be seen in the British Museum in London. I really like the smug smile on the cat's face, as he cheerfully slices his knife into the snake. What a scary cat!
Myojakdo (painting of cats and sparrows) by Byeon Sang-Yeok
Cats and Sparrows by a Korean Artist
I haven't been able to discover anything about this Korean artist, but the painting is listed as having been painted in around 1730. I like the simple design of this image. The background has been deliberately left blank, and the two cats have a distinctly oriental feel about them. I don't fancy the sparrows chances much, as these cats look like mean hunters!
Studies of an Awakening Kitten
Studies of an awakening kitten by Henriette Ronner-Knip
This wonderful study of an awakening kitten was painted by the Dutch artist, Henriette Ronner-Knip (1821-1909). This talented lady artist specialised in animal portraiture, and her charming studies are well observed and very pleasing.
Sleeping Jeppe by Bruno Liljefors, 1886
Sleepy cat enjoying the warm sunshine
Bruno Liljefors (1860-1939) was a Swedish Artist who loved to paint animals and wild-life. His bold, Impressionistic style gives his paintings a strong sense of light, and this great study of a sleepy cat, sunning himself, is no exception. The loose brushstrokes lend a feeling of immediacy and movement, and it is as though the cat might stretch and pounce at any moment.
Two Cats, Blue and Yellow by Franz Marc
German Expressionist Cats
The artist Franz Marc, son of the landscape artist, Wilhelm Marc, was born in Munich, Germany in 1880. His turbulent and remarkable artistic career was cut short by his early death at the young age of 36, but his characteristic and colourful art work have provided us with a lasting legacy. Strogly associated with the German Expressionist movement, Franz Marc was a founder member along with Wassily Kandinsky and Auguste Macke, of 'Der Blaue Reiter' group of artists.
Tomcat by Frans Koppelaar, 2005
Born in 1943, Frans Koppelaar is a Dutch artist, living and working in the Netherlands. His landscapes and citscapes are painted in a traditional style, but this study of a sleepy cat has a warm, Impressionistic feel to it.
The cat paintings of Louis Wain
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