Artist Louis Wain's Descent Into Schizophrenia Was Documented Through His Art
Louis Wain chose to draw his hallucinations as a way to confront them. We should pay attention to creations made by people with mental illness for better understanding and compassion towards them
Recently, I came across a TikTok video that showed a few drawings made by mental asylum patients. Intrigued, I researched more and stumbled upon Louis Wain.
Louis Wain was a popular English artist who had a progressive mental decline following the death of his wife, Emily Richardson. He was diagnosed with Schizophrenia when he was 57 years old.
He was best known for his anthropomorphic cat illustrations. Following his descent into Schizophrenia, his art began to deviate from his usual style.
His cat drawings began to seem distorted with so many shapes, colours, and patterns. It came to the point where it was impossible to identify the cat in his drawings.
I felt so sad looking at his drawings. A picture is worth a thousand words and the way he was slowly losing his mind could be seen in his drawings.
Let’s take a look at Louis Wain’s life and the progression of his Schizophrenia through his cat drawings.
Louis William Wain was born on 5th August 1860 in Clerkenwell, London, England. His parents were William Matthew Wain and Julie Felicite Boiteux.
He was the eldest of six children and was the only son. He had five sisters (Caroline, Josephine, Marie, Claire, and Felicie) and none of them ever got married.
In 1880, when he was 20 years old, his father passed away, leaving him to support his mother and sisters.
In 1883, when he was 23 years old, he married Emily Richardson. This caused a stir and was considered quite scandalous as she was ten years older than him.
Emily and Peter (a stray kitten they had rescued) were the inspiration for his anthropomorphic cat illustrations.
He drew so many sketches of Peter that Emily encouraged him to publish them. Unfortunately, Emily passed away in 1886 before this happened, due to breast cancer.
In 1886, sometime after Emily’s passing, Wain’s first drawing of cats, “A Kittens’ Christmas Party” was published in the Christmas issue of the Illustrated London News.
During this time, the cats he drew remained on all fours and were unclothed. As the years went by, his cats began to walk upright, have facial expressions, and were clothed.
These cats were portrayed serving tea, smoking, fishing, and playing musical instruments. In Victorian England, these kinds of anthropomorphic animals were very popular.
Soon, he became a prolific artist and gained popularity. His work appeared in journals, papers, magazines, and postcards. He even illustrated about a hundred children’s books.
Unfortunately, Wain was known to be very naïve and he was easily exploited in the publishing world.
This caused him to have a lot of financial issues despite his popularity as he was still supporting his mother and sisters.
In 1901, his sister, Marie was admitted to an asylum upon being declared insane.
Marie passed away in that asylum in 1913 at the age of 46. His remaining sisters lived with their mother for the rest of their lives.
In hindsight, it was speculated that mental illness ran in his family as Wain became a Schizophrenic.
In 1917, when he was 57 years old, he was diagnosed with Schizophrenia.
In 1924, when he was 64 years old, his behavior became very violent to the point his sisters could no longer cope. They committed him to a pauper ward at the Springfield Mental Hospital in Tooting.
A year later, his whereabouts were discovered and widely publicized. This caused an instant uproar.
H.G. Wells, an English writer appealed to have Wain transferred to a better place.
Finally, after the personal intervention of Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, Wain was transferred to Bethlem Royal Hospital in Southpark.
In 1930, when Wain was 70 years old, he was transferred to Napsbury Hospital in Hertfordshire, London.
This was where he was the happiest and most peaceful because there was a beautiful garden with a clowder of cats.
Although he became more delusional by day, his mood swings and outbursts reduced.
In November 1936, Wain had a stroke. Three years later, by May 1939, he was bedridden and unable to speak.
On 4th July 1939, he passed away when he was 79 years old at the Napsbury Hospital.
Here are a few of Louis Wain’s drawings in chronological order portraying his descent into Schizophrenia:
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