Louis Wain: How Schizophrenia Changed His Art
Louis William Wain (1860-1939) was an English illustrator best known for his anthropomorphized cat drawings which went from realistic to abstract as his mental health deteriorated. He started his career as a successful artist in 1881 after quitting his teaching job and mainly drew country scenes and animals at the beginning. At 23, he married his sister’s governess Emily Richardson who started suffering from breast cancer in the first year of their marriage. Her illness, which led to her death three years later, came as a turning point in Wain’s career. Here is the evolution of Wain’s cat illustrations in three periods.
During the Illness of Emily (1884-1887)
During her illness, Emily Richardson found comfort in their black and white cat named Peter who became the main object of Wain’s drawings in those years. He published his first anthropomorphized cat illustrations named “A Kitten’s Christmas Party.” In these illustrations, he depicted cats while sending invitations, playing games, making a speech, etc. Here are some of his drawings from this period.
After Losing Emily and Peter (1887- 1920s)
After losing Emily (1887), Peter, and one of his sisters (due to her mental breakdown), he started suffering from serious depression and cats became an obsession for him. During this period, he depicted cats with exaggerated expressions, walking upright, fishing, smoking, and engaging in sophisticated activities. His purpose was to parody humans. He would even go to public places and drew people as cats.
Later in Life: Schizophrenia
Later in life, his mood swings got worse, and his sisters committed him to a mental hospital in 1924. Bright colors, flowers, and abstract patterns identified his cat paintings during this period. After his death, some psychiatrists studied his paintings and associated this change with his schizophrenia. For example, a psychiatrist named Walter Maclay organized Wain’s paintings into series which was used in psychology textbooks to show how mental deterioration can affect art.
Moreover, another psychiatrist named Michael Fitzgeralt wrote that Louis Wain had visual agnosia (difficulty in identifying visually presented objects similar in appearance even though the person has knowledge of what that object is) which showed itself in his extreme attention to detail. Louis Wain was also accepted as the pioneer of 1960s psychedelic art.