One man's progressive withdrawal from reality to fantasy is clearly traced in his extraordinary series of cat paintings. They were done by an early-20th Century artist, Louis Wain. For some twenty years, Wain painted sentimental and realistic cat portraits which captivated Londoners. He had immense popular success illustrating calendars, albums, postcards and the like. Most of his life, he lived in seclusion with three spinster sisters and seventeen cats.
In his 57th year, indications of psychosis appeared both in his life and his art. He became convinced that enemies were influencing his mind with electrical impulses. At the same time, his cat portraits took an ominous turn.
Wain spent the last fifteen years of his life in mental hospitals, a quaint and courtly figure who suffered recurring delusions of persecution. He drew and painted constantly - always cats. Indicative of his psychotic state are his cats' eyes, which stare with hostility even in an early drawing: the psychotic often feels that a threatening world is staring at him. Another indication is fragmentation of the body: images of the body undergo strange transformation in psychosis, and are almost never drawn without distortion.
Wain's images eventually lost all coherence, but the baroque, infinitely detailed designs he produced were far more powerful and original than his former realism.
The cat at the left, above, was painted during the early stage of Louis Wain's affliction. It differs from his earlier work not only in the alarming eyes but also in the spiked fur. Wain also replaced his usual landscape background with a formal design, an artistic defense against his sense of mental disorder.
In the next portrait, this cat is quite hostile and a satanic red color predominates, particularly in the eyes - a projection of Wain's own fear that he was being victimized by evil spirits. The rainbow-colored halos around the cat are often found in psychotic art.
In the late stages of schizophrenia, Wain's cats are almost abstract designs (above and opposite). Here, realism has completely disintegrated. Wain replaced it with obsessive, formal patterns in a desperate effort to organize and master his disordered thought process.