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Awesome Men Throughout History: Louis Wain

Long before the advent of cat image macros, or the Internet, or even computers, there was Louis Wain. A British artist who specialized in, and was obsessed with, cat portraits, Wain is often held up as an example of how good outsider art can be.

wain1Unfortunately, Wain’s life was a difficult one. Poor health and detrimental attitudes toward mental illness were commonplace during his lifetime, and they complicated his life in myriad ways. Featuring him as this week’s Awesome Man Throughout History isn’t much of a consolation, but it’ll have to do.

Wain was born in London in 1860 and had five sisters, none of whom ever married. One of them was shipped out to an insane asylum when she was thirty, and the rest lived with their mother for their entire lives, as did Louis. I guess multi-generational living happened more often back then, but the angry, virginal tension in that house must have been suffocating.

Louis was born with a cleft lip and, since his doctor advised his parents not to put him in school like that, he spent a lot of time wandering London as a child. London was pretty gross and awful back then, so I can’t imagine that being good for him, but he did eventually attend the West London School of Art, and became a teacher there to support his family after his father died.

His affection for cats began after he married his family’s governess, which provoked much scandal since she was ten years older than him. Then as now, cougars were hard to resist.

Anyway, she died of breast cancer three years after they were married, and her final days were spent in the company of her cat, Peter. Louis, by then a freelance artist, started drawing pictures of the cat to make her happy, and she encouraged him to publish them. She died before he was able to heed her advice, but his anthropomorphic cats, who were drawn mimicking human behavior and facial expressions, became very popular. Wain was also nothing if not prolific, illustrating nearly one hundred children’s books as his work regularly appeared in print.

Wain had other problems, though. He was constantly broke due to his responsibilities for his mother and sisters, and also due to his terrible business acumen. People who think publishing is cutthroat now should take a look at the contracts that were industry standard back in Wain’s era. Swan from Phantom of the Paradise would have blushed.

Wain was also schizophrenic (or possibly autistic, scholars are currently divided on the subject), and was eventually committed when his family couldn’t deal with his erratic, violent behavior anymore. He spent the last 15 years of his life in an asylum. He did keep up with his painting, which became more abstract as his condition progressed, and his “Two Men and Eight Cats” series has been dubbed “the Mona Lisa of asylum art.”

Kind of a backhanded compliment, I suppose, but Louis Wain’s work is pretty great, and any cat lovers in my readership are advised to look him up. This gallery will get you started.

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About Dave Kiefaber Dave Kiefaber is a Baltimore-based writer who regularly contributes to Adfreak and the Gettysburg Times. His personal website is at www.beeohdee.blogspot.com.

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