Does the name Louis Wain mean anything to you? He was born in 1860 and he made an entire career out of drawing cats. Some say that Louis Wain caused dogs to be replaced by cats in the hearts of his fellow Victorian Englishmen.
Art can do that; it can inspire social change. Anyone that takes an art history course learns that art is not just something pleasant to view. Art encapsulates the cultural heritage of a nation; it expresses emotion and political views; it is the visualization of the human attitude towards life and the world.
Social change certainly was not Mr. Wain’s intent when he first created drawings of his wife’s tuxedo cat. She became terminally ill shortly after they were married, and he sought to amuse her with his fanciful feline depictions. She encouraged him to submit one his pictures to the “Illustrated London News,” which he did. From this publication, the “Louis Wain Cat” became hugely popular and was in great demand.
The felines that appeared in Wain’s drawings were consistently anthropomorphized, that is, they exhibited human characteristics. They provided light-hearted illustrations of the social environment of his time. These pictures appeared in newspapers, books, and on many postcards.
Cats Throughout History
Wain was certainly not the first person to depict cats in art. On a fragment of a mural from a palace wall of Minoan Crete, a painted cat is shown stalking a pheasant. This fragment dates back to 1600 BC. This painting was done long after humans and cats had started living in close proximity. Around 8,000 BC, each had realized this type of close living arrangement was mutually beneficial. Humans provided shelter for the cats and then the cats protected the human’s grain supply from mice and rats.
Cats appear regularly in ancient Egyptian art. They were sacred creatures to the ancient Egyptians and bronze statues have been found with mummified cats in cemeteries.
Excavations in Pompeii, the Roman city completely buried by lava from the eruption of the volcano Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD, have unearthed mosaics of cats on household walls.
Throughout the world and in various cultures, the cat often has had special meaning. In Islamic legend, Mohammed is said to have loved cats. Supposedly, a cat once saved his life when a snake crawled into his sleeve.
Cats Around the World
Cats are extremely popular in Russia. The Moscow Cat Museum opened in 1993. Its collection contains 1,500 works of cat related art.
Housed in a palace in Amsterdam, which dates from 1620, there exists a cat fancier’s paradise. The Katen Kabinet (Cat Cabinet) – a museum dedicated to the love of cats – the collection has modern cats, classical cats; cats in every guise from snuff bottles, pipes, and figurines, and in materials from ivory to stone, bronze, textile and ceramic. Within the collection is Picasso’s etching Le Chat (1942) and Harry Elliot’s La voix du sang (ca 1850- 1900).
These are only two of several museums dedicated to cats around the world. Other countries home to a cat museum includes: England, Lithuania (this museum collection includes more than 4,000 poems about cats), Malaysia, and Switzerland.
What about cat art in America? Surprisingly, there is no museum dedicated to cats even though the cat is one of the most popular pets in America. (There is a dog museum – The American Kennel Club Museum of the Dog — located in St. Louis, Missouri, which hosts 10,000 visitors a year.)
Nevertheless, cats are common subjects in American Folk Art. Some believe that art is not as deeply rooted in American culture, as it is in Europe or other areas of the world. But this nation is still very young and it is perhaps partly due to the fact that early Fundamentalist Protestantism discouraged image making on biblical grounds.
Louis Wain’s Cats Help Destigmatize Mental Illness
As to the question of whether the name Louis Wain means anything to you, your answer is now yes. It means cats. Sadly, Wain suffered from schizophrenia. He spent his last few years in a mental hospital but continued to draw his cats. Although Louis Wain never created his cat drawings for the purpose of social change, it was used for that reason. A collection of his drawings was on display at the Wardown Park Museum in Bedfordshire, England. The goal of that special exhibit was to help destigmatize mental illness