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The Curious Case of Louis Wain’s Madness: The Painter Who Dedicated His Life to Cats

Louis Wain was 23 when he began his relationship with Emily Richardson, the housekeeper of the house where he lived with his five sisters. The fact that he was 10 years younger than the woman he was going to marry caused a bit of a scandal in the community.

They married in 1883, but the joy of marriage was short-lived. Emily was diagnosed with breast cancer shortly thereafter, and it was up to Wain to help her through her long illness.

To cheer them up, he pulled out his notebook and turned his attention to the illustration of Peter, the house cat, keeping them company. The black and white animal is the character in much of his early work, which focuses on cats. Through him he discovered the talent that made him world famous.

The cat illustrations with Wain’s signature would win their place in British books and newspapers. And more than 80 years after his death, the artist is entitled to his own biopic with The Extraordinary Life of Louis Wain, starring Benedict Cumberbatch.

Autographed by Will Sharpe, the Amazon Studios production follows the life of Waine, who stars opposite Claire Foy (“The Crown”) in the role of Emily Richardson. It also includes appearances from Taika Waititi, Nick Cave – a noted Wain fan – and Olivia Colman. The film opens in Portuguese cinemas this Thursday, January 20th.

The pet caricatures should have been kept secret. Made only to cheer Richardson up, they ended up in the hands of Wain’s editors, who loved the portraits and developed some pieces for print. By special request, one of his best-known works, A Kitten’s Christmas Party, featured over 150 cats and was published in The Illustrated London News.

Cat images made him a celebrity, something that had never happened to him in so many years of working as a freelance illustrator, used to painting scenes of houses and animals on demand. Living with Peter, Emily’s cat, led him to discover his true talent.

Cat portraits took on a life of their own. They quickly transformed into beings that walked on two legs and mimicked human activities, playing cards, playing cricket, drinking and eating. The humorous tone and human facial expressions given to the animals were an incredible hit.

The designs became so popular that there was no home without a pair of Wain’s cats. “He raised his own cats. He invented a cat style, a society, a world made only of cats,” famous British author HG Wells wrote about the illustrator.

Fame was alien to Wain. He was born with a cleft lip and didn’t start school until he was 10, although he rarely showed up. He ended up getting an art education at a London school, where he became a teacher, before looking for a new job that would help him support his family financially.

He was the eldest of five unmarried sisters and became master of the house after his father’s death in 1880. He would be responsible for paying all the expenses of the sisters – who never married – and the mother.

His way of drawing was requested by several newspapers at a time when it was not possible to reproduce photos on their pages. But it was through a beleaguered relationship with the housekeeper that he found his greatest success and heartache.

Richardson’s cancer would be fatal. Emily died in 1887, four years after the marriage. Despite the recognition, depression and anxiety took over Wain’s life.

A widower and responsible for supporting the rest of the family, Wain struggled. He was described as a humble and naïve man who was habitually deceived in almost every business. Despite the success, there was barely enough money to pay the bills.

Lucky for him were the cats, the colorful and animated portraits he made, which in a way also helped protect animals. This was at a time when few cared about their rights. The Briton was a member of several animal protection associations. He was even president of the National Cat Club.

His drawings traveled the world, from hospital walls to children’s books to postcards. However, depression never left him and the early years of the 20th century were marked by inexplicable changes in behavior.

Wain occasionally displayed violent behavior and was eventually committed at age 64 to a psychiatric hospital dedicated to the poor. Marie, her older sister, was 34 when she was hospitalized for the same reasons – and died 12 years later, in 1913.

In addition to his fame for his unusual works, Wain has been the subject of studies into how mental illness affected his painting. He is now analyzed in many psychology books, with many specialists making a diagnosis of schizophrenia based primarily on an analysis of his work.

Wain’s cats came to life and human features

The cats became more colorful, more abstract, in a radical break with the line of earlier works. For decades, his mental health issues have been pinpointed to his intimate relationship with cats. Although a link has never been proven, it has been thought that toxoplasmosis – a disease caused by a parasite found in cat feces – could increase the incidence of schizophrenia.

Wain eventually spent the rest of his life in psychiatric hospitals, but with the help of several notables, he found sanctuary in more comfortable homes, away from the underprivileged wards. He continued to paint in Napsbury, north London, where he kept dozens of cats for company.

However, the diagnosis of schizophrenia has been contested by several experts, who point in a different direction: Wain could be autistic. Such is the case of Michael Fitzgerald, a psychiatrist who published an article in 2001 analyzing Wain’s mind through painting.

“Louis Wain didn’t have schizophrenia, he had Asperger’s syndrome. It’s very easy to mistake someone with bizarre beliefs for schizophrenia and think those beliefs represent a thought disorder,” he wrote. “[Wain] showed no deterioration in his talents as a painter and this lasted until the end of his life.”

Although he acknowledges that he was an “eccentric but brilliant” person, he emphasizes that he was a “lonely man” who was often “abused at school” like “like many people with Asperger’s.” “He was very naïve and yes, he went through a period of psychotic paranoia, as did Isaac Newton, but the key diagnosis remains Asperger’s – often confused with adult schizophrenia.”

Wain finally died in 1939 at the age of 78.

The evolution of drawn cats throughout Wain’s life

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