Louis Wain’s Schizophrenic Cats
Louis Wain’s Schizophrenic Cats
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Louis Wain’s Schizophrenic Cats

I’d like to call attention to a very interesting fellow.  Like many of us, he found himself experiencing the growing symptoms of schizophrenia and used his art as an expression of this illness.  One of the most effective coping mechanisms available is the full enjoyment of our hobbies.

While he may have been dealing with the discomfort and general annoyance of schizophrenia, I believe that he made the absolute best of it and continued to thrive and bring unabated creativity to his art, which I would like to share with you here.  Please read a bit about Louis Wain’s life first, and then continue to the bottom to see the progression of his artwork from the early periods and then forward.

The Life of Louis Wain

louis wainBut first, let’s speak of the man and his life first!  On a fateful day in the August of 1860 a newborn entered the world in London who would come to be widely known for his artistic talents in the anthropomorphizing of hand drawn cats.  Growing under the guidance of his father who worked in the textile and embroidery business, he was later joined by five sisters, leaving him the only male child of his French mother.

In what could be seen as a genetic predisposition to mental illness, one of his sisters became unmanageable and was admitted to a mental hospital for care.  All of the remaining children lived at home with their mother for the length of their adult lives.  Louis himself spent the largest portion of his life living at home with his parents as well.

realistic catAs a baby, Louis had to deal with the common affliction of a cleft lip, which kept him out of school until long after the age of ten.  He ultimately attended the West London School of Art (thankfully for us, who enjoy his work!) and even began teaching.  His father perished when he reached the age of twenty years old and he became the sole caretaker of the many females in his family.  This led to him becoming a freelance artist in which he was extremely successful, as we will continually show throughout this writing.

His Career as an Artist

humanoid catsAfter quitting his enjoyable position as a professor at college, he enjoyed himself much more immensely in his pursuit of freelance artistry.  This netted him wonderful jobs in many different journals, drawing landscapes, farm animals, and even more.

When his sister became sick with breast cancer, she found much comfort in the company of their house cat that they rescued as a stray from the cold.  In order to increase the good moods, Mr. Wain began teaching the cat tricks, such as wearing glasses, which led to him sketching these amusing moments.  His sister urged him to continue these drawings and attempt to have them published.  He did this, in honor of her life, and it led to his success and world wide fame.

His success found his artwork in magazines, children’s books, newspapers, and on postcards.  He began to work with many animal charities, produced comic strips, and more.  His success was widespread, but financially he remained burdened by his family.  I’m sure he was more than happy to support them.

The Progression of Louis’ Schizophrenia

cat schizophrenia drawingAs mentioned, Louis Wain’s drawings began like many other cute portrayals of animals.  They were featured wearing silly hats, holding balls, pretending to give a speech to other kittens, and other funny items.  The key attribute to notice is that all of the cats still resembled animals still.  They walked about on four legs, wore no clothing, and their faces showed no expression of human emotion.  This is how Louis began drawing his cats.  Very simply, they were cats in human situations and nothing more.

However, as time continued, Louis developed his cats into more anthropomorphic measure, meaning they began to resemble humans much more.  They were able to stand on two legs, smile like humans, and wear classy human clothing.  This sophistication of the cats was not strange.  He surely was not the first to draw animals playing the piano and drinking tea while enjoying a cigar at the opera!

first symptoms louis wainThe first signs of Louis Wain’s schizophrenic decline began after his mother’s death.  His usual charm left and his difficulty separating fantasy from reality increased.  Others began to have problem’s comprehending his tangential speech, oftentimes referring to his delusions that had started.  We all know these signs and symptoms, but he himself surely didn’t recognize it as it was happening.  His delusions were of the paranoid type, with fear surrounding electronics and the organization of the furniture in his home.  He began losing time to activities that had no specific goal other than to avoid this interference from some unnamed aggressor.

The Cat Schizophrenia Theory

There has been some controversy surrounding Louis Wain’s development of schizophrenia.

Some researchers have suggested that it is possible that Louis Wain contracted schizophrenia as opposed to developing it.  This is said to be possible through the exposure to toxoplasmosis, which is an infection created by parasites that cats can become host to, although the veracity of this theory is still under review.  This theory found its origin in 1953 but there is still no definitive evidence either way.

The Alteration of Wain’s Art

Eventually his sister’s had had their share of his strange and bizarre behaviors, sometimes culminating in violence.  They sent him to Springfield Mental Hospital where he remained for a year before other’s recognized him for his esteem and talent and attempted to intervene on his behalf, including H. G. Wells and the Prime Minister!  He was transferred to Napsbury Hospital in 1930 that had a more pleasant atmosphere, including a garden in which tons of cats lived!

normal artwork

As time continued, Louis’ work took on a more abstract characteristic.  The main element of his drawings, cats, remained, but they began to be drawn more in the portrait style, featuring one cat at a time.  There is dispute as to whether the commonly shown progression of his artwork actually mirrors the progression of his schizophrenic symptoms, but regardless, there is no question as to whether or not the drawings became increasingly strange.

early drawingThe smiling and happy cat portraits that featured nice floral backgrounds slowly transformed.  The happiness shifted into a sense of suspicion in the cat’s faces, and the floral patterns featured sharper points.  The bright colors became ‘electrified’ colors until finally the background featured auras of electrical activity radiated from the cats.  The cats themselves began to show more fearful and annoyed looks, with their ears turned backs and their eyes looking in peculiar directions.

The cats returned to smiles, although it appeared more of a strange contentment and mischief than pure happiness, until emotion left the cat’s faces altogether, looking more emotionally blunted with no affect whatsoever.  In time, the portraits began to resemble something more of a Tibetan diety and soon a psychedelic vision.  In the end, the cat’s were no longer perceivable and it looked more like what you would imagine some transcendental or multi-dimensional scene would appear like.

Conclusion

If this amazing story of Louis Wain’s development of his artistic skills to the point of fame and fortune and his eventual development of schizophrenia intrigues you, you will be happy to know that there are over a dozen books in his bibliography that you can obtain and enjoy.  Check them out if you’d like some inspiration!

Please scroll down to see a full progression of Louis Wain’s work as it becomes more bizarre and creative.

wain schizophrenic cats

Thank you for reading about the inspiring and creative life of Louis Wain at Schiz Life!

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7 Comments

  1. Always I enjoy a great artistic talent. Thanks for sharing this!

  2. This is a interesting read about others who have schizophrenia and are/were artists.

    I have been diagnosed with schizophrenia and love art, so thanks for writing about Louis Wain and showing his cats :)

  3. Thanks, fellas! I agree, this is one of the most interesting cases, not only of art, but of spirituality as well. There seem to be obvious eastern influences on his work. I’ve also been in love with art, especially hand drawing with pencil. It’s what entertained me through grade school!

  4. Good Folk at Schizlife,

    I am a retired family physician. During my college years there was a summer program for students interested in medical school at the local medical college. During that summer there was a monograph on Thorazine that had a series of images of an artist who painted cats. As his schizophrenia decompensated these gloriously bizarre paintings emerged and as he improved they became more naturalistic. You have helped me solve the mystery. It was Louis Wain.

    I have a passive interest in art therapy and now I will reconsider the passivity of that. You have inspired me to seek an artist to be a part of our community advisory board of the Comprehensive Mental Health Center at the medical college.

    Keep up the good work.

    A.L., MD

  5. Very interesting to see the images transform as his illness would peak, then return to its natural state as symptoms would decrease. Thank you for the informative story.

  6. This is truly AMAZING! I, too, suffer from schizophrenia. I adore cats and love to draw them more with pencil than anything else. I’ve always wondered was there a link between having this illness and having a soft heart for cats and/or other pets. Cats are very calming and soothing. I think people with a form of mental illness…they have a 6th sense. We’re not able to function normally especially under stress and with severe symptoms, but our creativity is also heightened in very unique and different ways. Thank you for this informative site! It’s great to know how others with this illness made it through. I thank God MOSTLY for this “eye opener.”

  7. As a schizophrenic and cat lover, I found this interesting. It’s nice to see stories where people are still able to create and do things even when the illness is tormenting them. Thank you.