The Madness and Artistry of a Victorian-era Illustrator of Anthropomorphic Cats

Victorian-era illustrator of anthropomorphic cats. I can’t even imagine a more appealing job description. It was fulfilled by a man named Louis Wain. Born in England in 1860, Wain first started to draw pictures of his black and white cat Peter to amuse and comfort his ailing wife. After her early death, he continued to draw cats and refine his style. As the years passed, his feline characters eventually walked on two feet, wore fetching Victorian frocks, and engaged in every activity imaginable, from fly fishing to competing in tug-of-wars. For many years his cat postcards were all the rage in Victorian England. Having been widowed with no children, he happily shared the financial rewards of his success with his five unmarried sisters and his aging mother.

Unfortunately as the years progressed, Wain’s behavior became increasingly erratic and, eventually, even violent. In 1924, when his sisters were no longer able to cope with his symptoms, they had him committed to the first in a series of mental asylums. For the next 15 years, until his death, Wain remained institutionalized but continued to practice his art. A great many of his cat paintings survive even today.

A famous series of Wain illustrations assembled by Psychologist Walter Maclay purports to show a bizarre decline, as the years and Wain’s illness (then thought to be schizophrenia) progressed, in his ability to portray a cat on paper. Where his early works were fully representational (if playfully whimsical), his paintings produced in the mental ward became increasingly colorful, experimental, and almost psychedelic, finally losing any resemblance to cats at all.

The problem with Maclay’s theory is that, because Wain did not date his paintings, there is no way to know if they actually show a chronological progression. Furthermore, other paintings that Wain produced during the period of his hospitalization remained conventionally representational of their given subjects. There is also some evidence that, instead of schizophrenia, Wain may have suffered from a severe form of Asperger’s Syndrome. Unfortunately, the unfounded conclusions first published by Maclay were reprinted in psychology textbooks as the seminal illustration of the twisted relationship between artistic creativity and mental health for decades afterward.

Regardless of the specifics of Wain’s diagnosis, there is an obviously some evolving connection between mental health and creativity (although we can’t conclude based on Wain that it is necessarily a decline) in many patients. In Wain’s case, it could have been as simple as finding the freedom to express himself on canvas for the first time, free of any obligation to create works for public consumption. No longer obligated to support others through his art, perhaps his mind was free to create works following no whim but his own for the first time in his adult life.

Certainly one does not have to be mentally ill to create great art. But, for some people, mental illness seems to allow them to tap into veins of creativity that might have otherwise remained dormant and unexpressed. Far from causing a decline in ability and skill (as Maclay sought to illustrate), mental illness might conversely open a door to increased skill and creativity in at least some patients.

But what a price to pay.

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