Louis Wain, Schizoid Painter

I think it was around 1962 when a series of flat cardboard boxes began arriving via the mail to the suburban house in Cedar Rapids where my family lived. Of course I was curious that day when the first one arrived, but my mother said, “It’s addressed to your father — you’ll just have to wait until he gets home, honey.”

The parcel turned out to contain the first of many books in a series called “The Time/Life Science Library”. There was one book in the series which really fascinated me: “The Mind”. It was full of lurid accounts of mental disorders; I, as an eight-year-old who had led a sheltered life, was just amazed and fascinated. In particular the sequence of cat paintings by Louis Wain intrigued me. Those images documented the man’s descent into full-blown schizophrenia in a way that no prose description could have done.

I must confess that I was vividly reminded of those paintings years later during my LSD period in the mid-1970s.

My favorite of the series of paintings is the one at the top of this post. It is fairly representational, without the floridly weird geometric excesses of Wain’s later paintings. There’s something about that cat’s eyes…

Here’s a Youtube video which presents Wain’s descent into madness in a sequential fashion:

There is some resemblance to Van Gogh’s later paintings, in particular his later self-portraits, such as this one:




Filed under Visual Arts

7 responses to “Louis Wain, Schizoid Painter

  1. Joan

    There is little doubt that Wain was Schizophrenic. There are a lot more theories about Vincent’s particular form of mental illness or illnesses. I think he could have suffered from Bi-polar disorder but Here’s a fascinating on-line discussion about what everyone else thinks he might have had.


  2. The cat looks perfectly normal to me . . . er, why is everyone staring???

    Josn, didn’t we discuss Vincent and effects of absenthe a while back?

  3. Joan

    Yes, most probably Darell.. That article I linked explores that also. I was interested in the many different theories they all seem to have based on their personal experiences.

  4. Joan, “personal experiences” Maybe. Or recall Don Mclean’s lyric:
    ” . . and on that starry starry night
    when no hope was left in sight,
    you took your life as lovers often do.
    But could have told you, Vincent,
    this world was never meant
    for one as beautiful as you.” ??

  5. Joan

    Beautiful song lyrics, Darrell. I’d forgotten that one. Was it used as soundtrack in the Kirk Douglas movie about Van Gogh? Still, I thought he took his life in broad daylight in the cornfields. Oh well. Poetic license triumphs.
    At any rate the link is kind of poignant, ’cause some of these people are talking about their personal experiences with mental illness, so they are seeing Vincent through their own starry lenses.
    BTW, speaking of lenses, I forgot to compliment you on that autumn view photo you took in the Hills near Hannibal. Lovely. .

  6. Glad you liked the photo Joan. Like many, I took it by accident almost.
    As for the lyrics for “Vincent”, I think those were from the mid-70’s. Douglas in “Lust for Life” was released in ca 1956. I saw in on the KHQA (?) late show a few years later and went nuts over it . . . strange high school kid!

  7. bev

    Interesting paintings and topic. I just looked around online to see more of Wain’s later works and they look like fractal images – I have a friend who likes to make those and they are very similar. The “jaggedness” of the images is also of interest as they remind me of something I observed when my dad and husband were in the late stages of metastatic forms of cancer. Both of them had very different styles of writing. My dad almost always printed everything in that beautiful style that architects and engineers used on their drawings in the earlier half of the 20th century. My husband had the most fluid, legible script style of writing. As both of them became increasingly ill with tumors then metastasizing to the brain, their writing became progressively jagged. In retrospect, I look at their journals, my dad’s ledger, etc… and can track the progression of their illness by the increasing jaggedness of everything they printed or wrote (note: it makes me sad to see this as I have found that, in both cases, this change began very early in their illness – in at least my dad’s case to months before his diagnosis). Anyhow, when I look at Wain’s paintings, I have to wonder if there may have been something more going on than schizophrenia.

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