Louis Wain’s whimsical anthropomorphic cats were a phenomenon during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. “He has made the cat his own,” said H. G. Wells. “He invented a cat style, a cat society, a whole cat world. English cats that do not look like and live like Louis Wain cats are ashamed of themselves.”
Initially appearing unclothed and on all fours, they developed into more elaborate human caricatures as his career progressed. However, sometime after 1900 he began displaying signs of mental illness, his behavior becoming increasingly violent and erratic until he was finally committed to an insane asylum in 1924. During this period, vivid, psychedelic patterns emerged from, and in some cases overcame his works until their remaining catlike features were barely discernible beneath fractal-like explosions of kaleidoscopic shapes and colors.
Around the time of his death the story emerged that he had suffered from schizophrenia (possibly triggered by toxoplasmosis) and that his style had become increasingly abstract as a consequence of his deteriorating condition. This was illustrated by a famous series of his paintings that found its way into psychology textbooks, purporting to show an artist’s descent into madness. These, however, were undated and it is unclear that they were actually produced in the order presented, or whether Wain continued to paint his traditional caricatures while experimenting in another direction. Research has likewise questioned the nature of his illness (Asperger’s syndrome and dementia have also been proposed) and its relationship to these late works. Are they the product of madness, genius, or a mad genius?
To the legions of devoted admirers who collect Louis Wain, his madness may remain an enigma, but there is no doubt as to his genius.
(Image by the Wellcome Library, London, CC BY 4.0.)