Louis Wain: The Artist with a Cat Obsession

Louis Wain was an English artist born in 1860 who solely painted cats. His struggles with mental illness influenced his artwork and his life.

Mar 22, 2023By Susanna Andrews, BA Interdisciplinary Arts

louis wain artist obsessed with cats


Louis Wain is known for his anthropomorphic cats that he dedicated his creative career to drawing and painting. Today, it’s not uncommon at all to see stylized depictions of animals acting and talking like humans, but Wain was one of the first to integrate a portrayal of creatures like this through his art. His obsession with cats grew after the tragic passing of his wife, which also aggravated his deteriorating mental health. Even after being admitted to a mental hospital and living there for 15 years until he died, Wain was as prolific of an artist as ever. Here is an outline of his early life and career.


Early Life of Louis Wain

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Louis Wain and Peter, via Flashbak


Louis Wain was born in London in 1860 to a textile trader father and a French embroiderer mother. He was the oldest brother to five sisters, who lived with their mother and never married. One of his sisters was admitted to a mental asylum in 1901, passing away there twelve years later. Louis had a cleft lip from birth and didn’t attend school often due to doctor’s orders. He studied at the West London School of Art and would teach there for some time. At 20 years old, their father died, leaving Louis to care for his family. A year later, he moved out and rented a furnished room. He had his first drawing Bullfinches on Laurel Bushes published in the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News.


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Untitled by Louis Wain, via Widewalls


He began freelancing as an artist. Primarily drawing animals and country scenes, he became quite successful and worked for journals like The Illustrated London News. Agricultural shows would commission drawings of livestock and he enjoyed illustrating diverse landscapes of animals, especially those showing dogs. In 1863, Wain married Emily Richardson, his sister’s governess who was ten years older than him. They moved to north London together. As her health was declining due to her battle with cancer, Wain found solace in the comforting presence of their stray black-and-white kitten Peter. He made many sketches of Peter during this time. This would mark the start of an artistic career defined by cats.


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Louis Wain’s Annual by Anthony Treherne & Co. Ltd., 1901 via AbeBooks

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His first drawing of anthropomorphized cats was titled A Kitten’s Christmas Party was commissioned by the editor of Illustrated London News. After Emily passed away in 1887 Wain became depressed, which fueled his obsession with cats. He depicted cats as more human-like from this time on. This was reminiscent of anthropomorphic animals in Victorian English artwork. He consistently stayed active as an artist in the following 30 years, illustrating children’s books, drawing for the Louis Wain Annual (1901-1915), and becoming the chairman of the National Cat Club in 1898 and 1911.


Christmas Cats

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A Kitten’s Christmas Party by Louis Wain, 1886, via Medium


Wain drew his first cat in 1883 and titled the piece A Kittens’ Christmas Party. The drawing was modeled after Peter, the kitten that he and his wife saw as their own child. Emily always encouraged him and inspired him to start sketching cats in the first place. The piece was included in the first of many annual Christmas editions of The Illustrated London News. Sir Walter Ingram published it in 1886 along with other Christmas Cat drawings.


The drawing features about 200 anthropomorphic cats participating in holiday activities. In Victorian times, cats were perceived to be feral and dirty. Wain’s cute depictions helped secure a warmer image of cats as pets. His work appeared in sixteen very successful Christmas annuals they released.


A Kittens’ Christmas Party was significant because it marked the start of his lifelong obsession with drawing and painting cats. He proceeded to create variations of this piece throughout his career, drawing many scenes of cats enjoying Christmas festivities. Even while hospitalized, Louis continued to paint merry-cats caroling. Even the nurses there requested it. To help decorate the ward for the holidays, he painted the mirrors at Bedlam hospital. Other Christmas paintings of his include Christmas Celebration (1890), A Merry Christmas Party (date unknown), and Bringing Home the Yule Log at Christmas Time in Catland (1910).


Madame Tabby’s Establishment (1886)

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Madame Tabby’s Establishment illustration by Louis Wain, 1886 via Booktryst


Madame Tabby’s Establishment is a children’s book by Kari (Caroline Hughes) that was published by Macmillan & Co. in 1886. It was the first book illustrated by Wain. It is considered a very rare find to this day. The story follows a young girl named Diana who is sent to Madame Tabby’s establishment in order to learn how to be a proper cat after being accepted to the Cat’s Court. The piece became a popular children’s book, as cats had never been drawn acting like humans before. The book included seven full-page black and white illustrations.


Kain had developed a cat world that saw them as equal to humans. Wain drew the cats to be posed and well-behaved, with the main cat wearing a crown. He would end up writing and illustrating other children’s books like Kitty Adventures throughout his career. Kitty Adventures included three full-color illustrations and a drawing for each page with touches of turquoise.


Cat’s Nightmare (1890) by Louis Wain

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Cat’s Nightmare by Louis Wain, 1890, via Redbubble


As a child, Wain suffered from nightmares, which dissipated after he recovered from scarlet fever at around eleven years old. Remembering these frightening dreams, he recounted: I was haunted; in the streets, at home, by day and night, by a vast globe, which seemed to have endless surface. Due to his cleft lip, he experienced debilitating anxiety and bullying from other kids. Although most of his cats show a joyful mood, there were a few pieces he created that reflected his childhood struggles and the grief he experienced after losing his wife. Cat’s Nightmare (1890) portrays the darkness he felt within him as his mental health declined after Emily’s death.


We see two cats lying under the covers while a number of owls sit on the bed and loom over. Both cats are aware of the hoards of owls watching over them. The feeling portrayed is suffocating, with no escape in sight and the anticipation of doom. Wain created this drawing four years after his wife died from cancer. Two cats in the bed could represent the couple, with the slightly more exposed cat representing Emily and the fully protected cat representing Louis.


Louis Wain’s Financial and Mental Health Struggles 

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Cat paintings by Louis Wain, via Reddit


Although he was successful, his financial situation did not reflect his level of popularity. He continued to support his mother and sisters. Along with this, Wain was irresponsible with his money. His naivety surrounding business led to his exploitation and he was often unknowingly left with no rights over his sold artworks.


In addition to his struggles with money, Louis’ mental health was suffering, so much so that his sisters sent him to a mental hospital in 1924 due to his erratic and violent behavior. He was eventually transferred to Napsbury Hospital in North London in 1930. There, he could peacefully roam the garden and spend time with cats. His mood swings became less aggressive, and he continued to draw cats for enjoyment, in surprisingly vibrant color schemes. Wain passed away in 1939 at the hospital.


The psychology textbooks that portray his evolution from realism to abstraction have been criticized because Wain didn’t date his works, so outlining his paintings chronologically wouldn’t be possible. This linear deterioration of his creative expressions was due to the psychiatrist Walter Maclay’s organization of the artwork, which was not based on a true timeline. Maclay believed that creative ability declined over time for people with schizophrenia but observing artworks of outsider artists disputes this hypothesis. It’s impossible to determine 100% which mental illness Wain experienced. What we do know is that he continued painting cats in spite of his mental health struggles.


Louis’ kaleidoscopic-like trippy cats produced during his time at the psychiatric hospital were attributed to the development of the 1960s psychedelic art movement. Many admire Wain’s work since he wasn’t under the influence of psychedelic drugs while creating these paintings. Although they were produced while he was at a sanatorium, it’s impossible to conclude that they were directly tied to his diagnosis of schizophrenia.

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By Susanna AndrewsBA Interdisciplinary ArtsSusanna is an artist passionate about generating concepts for creative writing pieces and short films. During this process, she loves to research topics related to art history and philosophy to inform her ideas. She graduated from the University of Washington with a BA in Interdisciplinary Arts and lives in Southern California.