These days, we all know that cats rule the internet. In fact, it’s almost impossible to spend more than a few minutes online without running into some humorous representation of our feline friends.
But what you might find surprising is that two-dimensional portrayals of these household pets found fame long before the digital age took hold. Indeed, as these paintings show, some rather bizarre cats were taking center stage long before memes took the world by storm.
The man behind the art is Louis Wain, who was born to a textile trader father and a French mother in London, England, in 1860. It would be another ten years before he attended school, however, as Wain was born with a cleft lip.
As a teenager, though, Wain developed a keen interest in drawing and began taking courses at the West London School of Art. And, upon leaving, he became a teacher at the school for a short while, although he left aged 20 when his father died.
It was at this time, with his mother and five unmarried sisters to support, that Wain settled into a career as a freelance artist and illustrator. Certainly, he worked for various publications illustrating country scenes as well as producing pictures of livestock from agricultural shows.
However, it wasn’t until his mid-twenties that Wain happened upon the theme that would inspire him for most of his career. It all came about after he married an older woman named Emily Richardson, and together they relocated to Hampstead, north London.
One night, the couple rescued a stray kitten they had found out in the rain. They named him Peter, and he was a great comfort to them when Richardson became ill with cancer.
During this time, then, Wain began to draw portraits of the black and white cat. They were so good that his wife encouraged him to publish the sketches, although she tragically died before he could realize this dream.
Interestingly, though, Wain seemingly focused mainly on impressively realistic renderings of cats early in his career. But it would be for his drawings of comedic, anthropomorphized creatures that he would become known.
Indeed, in 1886 the first of these illustrations was published in The Illustrated London News. It featured no less than 150 cats, all engaged in distinctly un-catlike activities, such as making speeches and sending party invitations.
Despite being depicted in such odd situations, though, the cats in these early works were still distinctly feline. However, as Wain’s work progressed, he began to add more and more human characteristics to them.
Certainly, over time, Wain’s cats started to walk on two legs. They also began to wear modern clothing and developed mischievous grins and other incongruous facial expressions.
Understandably, people all over Victorian England fell in love with Wain’s work. It was published in books and newspapers, as well as on postcards that became highly collectible. He also brought his unique talents to a series of children’s books.
Over the next three decades, then, Wain enjoyed a fertile patch as an artist, even at one point producing hundreds of drawings in a single year. But despite his success, Wain’s naivety in business and financial responsibilities in supporting his mother and sisters meant that he often struggled with money.
And in the early 1900s Wain began to show signs of ill health. One of his younger sisters had already been committed to an asylum, and his erratic and sometimes violent behavior seemed to indicate that he might be suffering from schizophrenia too.
In fact, in 1924 Wain was deemed clinically insane and admitted to London’s Springfield Mental Hospital. Sadly, despite interventions from public figures such as the novelist H.G. Wells and even the Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald, Wain would spend the rest of his life in institutions. He passed away in 1939.
Although some scholars have claimed that he was suffering from schizophrenia brought on by exposure to parasites in cat faeces, there’s little evidence to support such a claim. In fact, it’s unclear whether or not the artist was even officially diagnosed with schizophrenia – some claim that it may have been Asperger Syndrome that caused his symptoms.
There are also many books that claim that it was this period of deteriorating mental health that was responsible for some of Wain’s most bizarre work. And it’s easy to see why.
With their psychedelic, fractal patterns and bizarre distortions, these drawings certainly seem a world away from Wain’s soft and friendly pictures of household cats. Indeed, many psychology publications have put them forward as a striking visual example of an individual’s descent into a severely troubled state of mind.
However, writer Rodney Dale discovered that there were no dates on many of his works, meaning that the claim that his more surreal paintings had been produced after his diagnosis was completely unsubstantiated. His own theory as to Wain’s inspiration? That the artist took delight in mimicking the wallpaper designs he recalled from his family’s textile business.