On August 5, 1860 in Clerkenwell, London, Louis Wain was brought into the world. His father worked in the textile industry and was married to Louis' French mother. Louis was the first of six children, as well as the only male child. Out of the six, he was not the only one who eventually suffered from a mental disorder, suggesting that mental illness ran in his family. None of his sisters ever married. His youngest sister was dubbed "insane" and spent the ladder of her life in an asylum. Louis was born with a cleft lip (which at the time lead to the assumption that a mental deficiency was present), and was not allowed to begin school until he was ten years old. He disliked school, and often spent his time wandering the streets of London as a youth rather than attending class. Eventually, however, at the age of 20 he began attending an art school where he later became a teacher until his father's death forced him to move back home to support his mother and sisters. He soon became a freelance artist, selling his paintings and sketches to various London magazines and newspapers. He met his wife, Emily Richardson, his sister's governess' at the age of 23 while she was 33. Though the marriage was considered scandalous, their marriage continued to thrive.Three years later, Emily was unfortunately diagnosed with breast cancer and soon died. During the time of her illness, Louis began to entertain her by teaching their cat, Peter to do human-like tricks. He would then paint Peter doing these things such as wearing glasses and pretending to read so that his wife could have them. 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.". After his wife's death, Wain continued to paint cats and sell them for children's books, magazines and newspapers. His paintings became very popular, especially after the cats featured in his paintings began to "evolve". Wain began painting them walking upright and wearing human's clothing, which was considered a large source of popular culture entertainment at the time. He illustrated roughly one hundred children's books, and his work appeared in papers, journals, and magazines, including the Louis Wain Annual, which ran from 1901 to 1915. His work as a consistent artist continued steadily for about thirty years until he began to suffer from mental illness.
At the age of 57 in 1917, Wain started to experience the first signs and symptoms of schizophrenia. It was evident in his art, as his paintings ceased to depict the cats in human-like situations, and shifted focus to the cats themselves. The cats began to look more frightened at times, and began to be drawn with jagged and colorfully lined edges. As Wain was always intent on drawing exactly what he saw, it was evident that he was seeing "energies" around the cats due to his illness. As he grew older, he also began suffering from dementia, causing even further digression into the rapidly changing style in which he painted his beloved felines. Soon the cats were almost fractal in pattern, hardly resembeling cats at all, except to the abstract mind. The cats began to have hundreds of colorful shapes and polygons that made the cats nearly resemble eastern religion dieties. In 1924 he was certified as insane, just as his youngest sister was, and fell into poverty.
The Final Years
Wain began to suffer from violent mood swings, which his sisters soon could no longer control. From his dementia came confusion, which mixed with the agression that can accompany schizophrenia to create a perfect storm. When his sisters could no longer cope with his erratic and occasionally violent behavior, he was finally committed in 1924 to a pauper ward of Springfield Mental Hospital in Tooting. The majority of the hospitals he was committed to were relatively pleasant. One even came with the luxury of a garden and colony of cats, where he spent his final 15 years in peace. While he became increasingly deluded, his erratic mood swings subsided, and he continued drawing for pleasure. His work from this period is marked by bright colors, flowers, and intricate and abstract patterns, though his primary subject remained the same. He spent his final days delusional, but peacefully amongst the objects he admired painting and being around the most.
Though the widely accepted story of Wain's legacy is rarely disputed; as always, there are, as expected inverse opinions. Many believe, and (perhaps, admitedlly biased on my behalf) rightfully so that the colorful progression and evolution of his feline subjects were directly correllated with his deteriorating mental state due to the irefutable amount of evidence leading to said conclusion. However http://mindhacks.com/2007/09/26/the-false-progression-of-louis-wain/ attempts to dispute the theory saying:
"However, the pictures were undated and, as Rodney Dale notes in his biography of Wain (Louis Wain: The Man Who Painted Cats; ISBN 1854790986), “with no evidence of the order of their progression, Maclay arranged them in a sequence which clearly demonstrated, he thought, the progressive deterioration of the artist’s mental abilities.”
However, the increasing abstraction over time is likely to be a myth. Wain’s biography again:
Assembling what little factual knowledge we have on Dr Maclay’s paintings, there is clear 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, perhaps 10 years after his [supposedly] ‘later’ productions which are patterns rather than cats. All of which is to say no more than that the eight paintings were done at different times, which could be said of eight paintings by any artist!"