Cat Fancy… Unhinged

by karolinawaclawiak

Have you ever heard of Louis Wain? He was a Victorian artist who painted pictures of anthropomorphic cats. Cats playing ball and smoking cigarettes. Cats in Victorian garb, sporting monocles, playing trumpets and dancing wildly in posh party scenes. Comic strip cats, children’s books full of cats and cats running through postcards. You get the idea.

(Photo courtesy of

He started painting his house cat, Peter, to comfort his dying wife and continued on an artistic journey that would last a lifetime. Wain was quite successful, with double-page spreads in the Illustrated London News, books, awards. He was so well-known for his paintings of cats that he was elected as President of the National Cat Club after writing the book In Animal Land With Louis Wain. However, after World War I people no longer held the same interest in images of frolicking cats, perhaps the chaos of war couldn’t afford room for whimsy anymore.

(Photo courtesy of Fanny G Illustrations)

As popularity of Wain’s cat portraiture waned a new kind of energy started sprouting up in his work. Wain’s cats started betraying more and more anxiety, perhaps in response to the world around him. His cats suddenly had fear in their eyes, near panic, and a new kind of distrust. More than likely, they mirrored the frenetic energy taking over his own mind.

(Photo courtesy of BrixPicks)

Their anxious progression began to show the trajectory of Wain’s own mental illness as a diagnosed schizophrenic. His cats’ large, yellow eyes illustrated a consuming paranoia.

(Photo Courtesy of Rodrigo O.)

I’m continually struck by the eyes of his cats and how much tension, and ultimately terror, he housed in their small frames. Wain would later push himself further, creating such abstract work that the nearly pulsating lines only hinted at a cat underneath. (Photo Courtesy of Sunny Down Snuff)

Although he had a huge body of work the poor business decisions he made, such as failing to retain the rights of his own work, led him to destitution. Eventually, he was committed as his mental health deteriorated and in 1925 was found in a low-grade mental hospital by H.G. Wells. What did Wells do? Rounded up benefactors, including the Prime Minister, so that Wain could be moved to a better facility to live out his life in safety and comfort. He continued painting his cats through the end of his life. I recently found a Louis Wain quote from the IDLER(1896):

“I used to wander in the parks studying nature, and visited all the docks and museums. I consider that my boyish fancy did much towards my future artistic life, for it taught me to use my powers of observation, and to concentrate my mind on the details of nature which I should otherwise never have noticed.”

It makes me think of how writers and artists really have no choice but to convey their own peculiar views, no matter how strange the picture may be.

(Photo courtesy of Sunny Down Snuff)

13 Comments to “Cat Fancy… Unhinged”

  1. I find this piece utterly fascinating. It reminds me of the Martín Ramírez exhibit at the folk art museum a few years back–the exhibit tried to demonstrate you could see the changes in the art as his schizophrenia became more debilitating. The art was just as (or more) compelling but certain motifs, if I recall, became alarmingly intense and the feel of them increasingly claustrophobic, the lines tightening, etc. the world closing in.

  2. Wow! His art is definitely claustrophobic. I could feel my chest tightening as I clicked through. It’s interesting to see people’s minds laid bare on the page, no?

  3. Most definitely! this is also reminding me of how, in the documentary CRUMB, they show R. Crumb’s brother’s comic illustrations as he was going through a breakdown–how they changed, the text overtaking the frame compulsively, crowding everything out!

  4. I’ve never forgotten a sequence of his works in one of those incredible Time Life series books about the mind. I wish I had all of those books now. I recently came across one on Crime from the ‘Human Behavior’ series in a used book store and had to buy it.

    Have you seen those wild Henry Darger Vivian Girl pieces at the folk art museum? And watched the great documentary with Dakota Fanning’s creepily perfect narration? Do you think Darger was mentally ill?

    • Yes, I am obsessed with Darger and that full exhibit is one my favorite ever! It is a perfect documentary too–the animation is superb. I think he had clearly been traumatized in that boy’s home but never been treated for it. What do you think?
      God, those Time-Life books—what would we have done without them???

  5. Smashing stuff. Good on HG too!

  6. I just did the google on Darger and he seems to have been a very weird dude. His lifestyle and the single photo I saw make me think of Albert Fish. The documentary on Darger is available so I’ll try and watch it.

    • A library customer just received a book from another library, AMERICAN ANTHEM: MASTERWORKS FROM THE AMERICAN FOLK ART MUSEUM. I flipped through it to see if any Darger work was included. I would have checked the index but forgot the fellow’s name.

  7. And this is why I never get anything done:

    Megan’s response to Karolina’s excellent post referenced Martin Ramirez at the Folk Art Museum, which led to my revisiting Henry Darger (for hours and hours), in which I stumbled upon a murder that had obsessed Darger (Elsie Paroubek, the five-year-old daughter of Czech immigrants who was murdered in 1911 – and yes, there’s a novel in there). That incident was unfortunately one of a long, long list on Wikipedia of unsolved deaths, so of course I’ve spent the rest of the week reading through dozens of websites devoted to each strange episode- The Lead Masks Case, the Taman Shud Case, the Hinterkaifeck murders – thinking about the amazing short stories, novels and movies in each one of them. All that mystery, drowned in dozens of odd facts and sightings and theories. It’s just completely absorbing.

  8. Dennis, i’m beginning to think we were separated at birth!

  9. I love it! I also remember the Ramirez exhibit, that was also quite excellent. And you can also put me down as a big Crumb and Darger fan, too.

  10. Errie evolution of the cat art. A couple of decades ago I saw a fabulous show of Outsider Art at the LA County Museum. His work should have been in it. Henry Darger’s was. It’s progression into increasing violence was quite terrifying.

  11. Comparisons of Darger to Albert Fish are odious. Yes, they had similar backgrounds and were both religious devotees, but there the similarity ends. Not every loner is a predator. When Henry said he wanted to protect children, he meant it.

    As Megan said, there was no “treatment” back then and if there had been he couldn’t have afforded it. Psychoanalysis was for rich people. To a large extent churches and pastors were the counselors for ordinary folks.

    Henry’s art did not happen in a vacuum. He was a devout Catholic who was very familiar with Church iconography. He’d seen horrific things in that asylum and possibly in the hospital where he worked. I think his book and illustrations were his way of working it out, and trying to answer the question we all ask: why does God let these things happen to anyone, especially innocent children?

    By the way, Louis Wain may also not have been as insane as he’s been made out to be. I don’t hold with FItzgerald’s idea that he had “Asperger syndrome” — everybody who is different gets diagnosed with that nowadays — but I think that from the descriptions I’ve read, he may have been obsessive, and possibly had epilepsy (back then, erroneously connected with insanity). There is no way to tell for sure.

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