Wain's World: How the Artist Went Insane When the Cat Got His Brain
August 12, 2007 12:37 PM   Subscribe

Louis Wain became one of the most famous British illustrators of the late Victorian and Edwardian era after trying to cheer up his wife Emily by drawing portraits of their pet cat, Peter. In addition to publishing a popular children's book about kittens, he was a founder of the U.K's National Cat Club who was instrumental in promoting the Cat Fancy movement, which encouraged Britons of all classes to view cats as lovable pets instead of household pests. Unfortunately, after Wain's wife Emily died of breast cancer, Wain gradually went mad due to psychosis and late onset schizophrenia, ending up in London's notorious Bethlehem Hospital (the etymological origin for the word bedlam). While at Bedlam, Wain continued to draw, but his cat portraits transformed into pure geometric abstraction and psychedelic fractals, but some see harbingers of madness in cryptically titled works, such as Early Indian Irish and The Fire of the Mind Agitates the Atmosphere. For more insight on Wain, check out this 1896 interview and this short film dramatizing the progression of Wain's schizophrenia through his art.
posted by jonp72 (24 comments total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
Fascinating, thanks
posted by donfactor at 12:41 PM on August 12, 2007

Wonderful post! Thank you very much!
posted by rockhopper at 12:43 PM on August 12, 2007

metafilter is on fire today, muppets and cats booyahhhhhh
posted by evilelvis at 12:52 PM on August 12, 2007

The person who was instrumental in somehow convincing people that cats made good pets was schizophrenic? It all makes sense now.
posted by grouse at 1:01 PM on August 12, 2007 [2 favorites]

I was interested to read in some of the linked pages that after the onset of Schizophrenia, he continued to draw illustrations in his former style alongside these more abstract works. I was also susprised to read that the detail of his more abstract cat paintings may not have come from Schizophrenia but from experimentation with wallpaper designs-- his mother was a wallpaper and carpet pattern designer.

I usually don't come across Wain in books on art, but rather works on psychology. I wonder how that has affected his reputation as an artist-- does his Schizophrenia lowered people's view of the beautiful art he created in Bedlam?
posted by honest knave at 1:01 PM on August 12, 2007 [1 favorite]

Well, get that one up into the wallpaper then.
posted by nervousfritz at 1:06 PM on August 12, 2007

we've heard a about him and his psychosis in an fpp before, but this is a pretty excellently put together post, so I'm not going to use the d-word.
posted by es_de_bah at 1:08 PM on August 12, 2007

Wow, I'm definitely not a cat person but I like the post-schizophrenia/wallpaper cats!

promoting the Cat Fancy movement, which encouraged Britons of all classes to view cats as lovable pets instead of household pests

I wonder why Britons would consider cats a pests since they helped keep the rodent population disease vector down...
posted by porpoise at 1:26 PM on August 12, 2007

So... yeah.

I'd considered making a Louis Wain FPP, but I'd figured that it had been done before (if a very long time ago and not this throughly), and besides, me doing one would have been just a little too ridiculously eponysterical. In any case, this is certainly the most complete of them, and better than I think I could have done.

If anyone's interested in learning more about him, probably the definitive book on Wain is this one by Rodney Dale, which I've recommended here in the past- and re-reading another comment I made in that thread, it pretty much says everything about Wain and his artistic merits that I would now, so I'll just link to it. But yeah, I'm definitely of the opinion that there's a lot more value to his post-schizophrenia work than just the psychological curiosity aspect.

Anyway, excellent job with the FPP, and thanks!
posted by a louis wain cat at 1:43 PM on August 12, 2007 [2 favorites]

Interesting, thanks, particularly the interview. I'd like to know more about his mother's work.

"Who would not be a cat of Louis Wain's, capable of creating ten minutes' sunshine in a childish heart?"
posted by paduasoy at 1:53 PM on August 12, 2007

The dramatically satisfying idea that these beautiful pieces reflect Wain's ongoing descent into schizophrenia is most likely untrue. In his biography of Wain, The Man Who Drew Cats (as far as I know this is the only biography of the artist), Rodney Dale shows that Dr Walter Maclay, a collector of art by mental patients, found the images and arranged them, arbitrarily (some are unsigned and all are undated), into an order that suggested the progression of Wain's madness...

Says Dale: "Assembling what little factual knowledge we have on Dr Maclay's eight paintings, there is clearly no justification for regarding them as more than samples of Louis Wain's art at different times. Wain experimented with patterns and cats, and even quite late in life was still producing conventional cat pictures..."
A unique view into the developing mind of a schizophrenic is evident when examining the progression of Wain's art
Characteristic changes in the art began to occur, changes common to schizophrenic artists

Uh yeah, otherwise cool cats.
posted by prostyle at 2:16 PM on August 12, 2007 [1 favorite]

From the Amazon link to the Rodney Dale book:

Born in 1860 Wain became a household name for his cat illustrations in the 2890s.

Quite ahead of his time!
posted by look busy at 2:49 PM on August 12, 2007

oooh!~ great post, jonp72!

i see that nasreddin already mentioned our very own a louis wain cat.

some louis wain album cover art, and a very lazy google search link to current 93.
posted by UbuRoivas at 2:51 PM on August 12, 2007

You know a MeFi post is good when you are already educated and fascinated before clicking the links.
posted by DU at 3:08 PM on August 12, 2007 [1 favorite]

In response to prostyle- the long-held idea inspired by the Maclay exhibit that Wain's work became progressively more abstract as he became more schizophrenic isn't really true, and he was indeed still producing conventional pictures during that period, but I wouldn't say that the sentence you struck through is false- his art really is noticeably different post-schizophrenia. The wallpaper/psychedelic cats, as far as I know, only show up after he became fully schizophrenic, and the more conventional stuff from that time tends to be subtly odd in various ways outside of the basic cats-playing-golf aspect of it.

And in response to UbuRoivas- Current 93 was actually the way I discovered Wain in the first place. For one of their albums, as I recall, they announced that all the profits made from it would go towards the restoration of Wain's grave, which was evidentially in very poor shape. I don't know how successful it was, but I thought that was a nice gesture.
posted by a louis wain cat at 3:11 PM on August 12, 2007

Sell all you have
And give it to the kittens
Pour the milk on Louis' grave
And then Catland
Sometimes called Pussydom
Will open for you instantly...

posted by UbuRoivas at 3:22 PM on August 12, 2007

Not that I know anything about schizophrenia, but some of the pictures from after/during his illness are absolutely chilling. I remember seeing one before - a painting of a highly abstracted, angular cat staring right at the viewer - that gave me the willies for ages.
posted by bokane at 5:15 PM on August 12, 2007

I really like this one.
posted by Arturus at 6:57 PM on August 12, 2007

It's interesting to note that both Jim Woodring and Sally Cruikshank both exhibit similar artistic motifs to Wain's... I don't know much about Sally Cruikshank, but Woodring definitely suffers undiagnosed mental illness that results in hallucination.
posted by Slap*Happy at 7:46 PM on August 12, 2007

Slap*Happy - He does? Because I need some of that. Woodring is brilliant.

I suppose I can add my name to the parade of those that contemplated a Louis Wain fpp but thinks yours is better.
posted by louche mustachio at 8:17 PM on August 12, 2007

The Necrotelicomnicon was written by a Klatchian necromancer known to the world as Achmed the Mad, although he preferred to be called Achmed the I Just Get These Headaches. [...] Little is known about his life prior to this event, because the page headed 'About The Author' spontaneously combusted shortly after his death. However, a section headed 'Other Books By the Same Author' indicates that his previous published work was Achmed the I Just Get These Headaches's Book of Humorous Cat Stories, which might explain a lot.
--Terry Pratchett, "Moving Pictures"
posted by darksasami at 11:41 PM on August 12, 2007

Arturus wrote: I really like this one.

I was first introduced to this particular image via Oingo Boingo's eponymous EP.
posted by retronic at 12:30 AM on August 13, 2007

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