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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

By Dharrsheena Raja SegarranPublished 2 years ago Updated 5 months ago 3 min read
Louis Wain and his drawing 'Holiday Time' Credit: Wikiart

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 Wain and his cat, Peter
Credit: BBC News

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.

Louis Wain and Emily adopted a stray Hampstead kitten called Peter who inspired his first cat drawings.
Credit: Courtesy Chris Beetles Gallery, St James's, London

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.

A Kitten's Christmas Party by Louis Wain
Credit: Simon Hitchman

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.

Credit: Simon Hitchman

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.

This cat, like many painted during this period, is shown with abstract patterns behind it. Psychologists have cited this increased abstraction as symptomatic of Wain having schizophrenia.
Credit: Wikipedia

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:

Credit: Meisterdrucke
Credit: Simon Hitchman

Tommy Catkins by Louis Wain
Credit: Simon Hitchman

Credit: Simon Hitchman

Credit: Simon Hitchman

Credit: Simon Hitchman

Credit: Simon Hitchman

Credit: Simon Hitchman

Credit: Simon Hitchman

Credit: Meisterdrucke

Credit: BBC News

Credit: Simon Hitchman

Credit: Wikiart

Credit: Chris Beetles Ltd

Credit: Wikiart

Credit: Chris Beetles Ltd

Credit: Wikiart

Credit: Meisterdrucke

Credit: Meisterdrucke

Credit: Wikiart

Credit: Pinterest

Credit: Mayhem and Muse

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About the Creator

Dharrsheena Raja Segarran

My mental health decline brought about a lot of darkness and I embraced it. It now flows out mostly as Dark Stories and Poetry.

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Comments (39)

  • Angie the Archivist 📚🪶4 months ago

    Fascinating read… with his gorgeous artwork… so sad though. Good on HG Wells, helping him! Glad he got a reprieve for a bit… ‘This was where he was the happiest and most peaceful because there was a beautiful garden with a clowder of cats.’ Thanks Dharrsheena… excellent story.

  • Leslie Writes5 months ago

    Oh my goodness! Those last few drawings are shocking. I got a chill up my spine. What he must have went through 🥺

  • Bonnie Bowerman5 months ago

    This was so visually compelling. How his art changed with his illness was so dramatic. But I find it really beautiful too. Thank you fro this Dharrsheena

  • Mother Combs7 months ago

    His work is very interesting. So is this article

  • Donna Fox (HKB)about a year ago

    D, I like the stance you took on this right from the beginning. The lesser told perspective of compassion towards someone with mental health troubles, just shows what a beautiful soul you are! I love the way you walked us through his life and showed how triggering unfortunate events can be for those whom are unstable. It’s triggering for those who are stable too but it just shows that you never know what a person is going through! It was fascinating to see the decent in his drawings and how they evolved through time. This was such a fascinating read, great work Dharrsheena! 💜

  • Stephanie J. Bradberryabout a year ago

    I learned a lot. This is an amazing article. And the visuals help capture the essence of your overall message. There is a lot we can discern about a person from his or her artwork.

  • Roy Stevensabout a year ago

    "with a clowder of cats". It's a lovely turn of phrase we so seldom see. I've seen a few of Wain's pieces before, and knew a little about him, but your well written article was very informative and sensitively presented. Thanks for directing attention toward mental health issues!

  • Awesome ✨ I loved this story and He was a Great Talent ❤️💯😉😍💬Thanks for sharing ❗❗

  • Donna Reneeabout a year ago

    Wow, this was so fascinating to me! He was very talented. You can really see the sharp change in his perception of the world as time progressed. You wrote this in a way that made it interesting but it was also very compassionately done!

  • Andrei Z.about a year ago

    This was interesting! I'm not a big fan of paintings/drawings, this form of art usually doesn't resonate with me very much, but these drawings really touched me. Thank you for your story! I discovered a new interesting artist whose works talked to me. P.S. If you enjoy reading biographies, you should check a book 'Van Gogh: the life' by Naifeh and Smith. The artist had quite an interesting althogh hard life, and the authors did a really great work narrating it on paper.

  • Ted Hauserabout a year ago

    Wow...great story. His later paintings look like descriptions of a DMT trip....It almost seems as if the colors and patterns in his mind slowly consumed the cats...while he ended up farther from reality.

  • Liviu Roman2 years ago

    Thank you so much for taking the time to share your story with us. Your words were powerful and touched me deeply. I'm now a big fan of your work, and can't wait to see more of your writing in the future.

  • Omg this was stunning! Well researched and thoughtful. I am in love with his kittens omg so precious 💕 he was loved by then I'm sure

  • Denise Larkin2 years ago

    Excellent story about this Louis Wain. These drawings have intrigued me. Thanks for sharing such an interesting person and all of these pictures.

  • Glenn Brown2 years ago

    Enjoyed and learned. Thank you for telling this story.

  • Gene Lass2 years ago

    Amazing.

  • I connected with this story right away! I find it fascinating what any kind of mental illness can do to an artistic person. My mother was an artist. For many years she painted beautiful landscapes and seascapes, had art shows, etc. She held her last art show six years ago, right before Alzheimer's and Dimentia began to take over. Her paintings became trimmed with ordered borders and inside those borders was utter chaos. I recently posted an article here about mom, called Mom's window. It's like she was looking through a very small window that grew darker every day. This piece you wrote took me back to that and I am grateful to have read this! Thank you so much for sharing! (I may go see if I can find that story and put the link in a reply so you can read it if interested.

  • Test2 years ago

    It's incredible how his style changed! You did a wonderful job presenting the information in layman's terms. Very informative!

  • Very interesting. Thank you!

  • P.K. Lowe2 years ago

    Such a informative piece!! You composed this piece wonderfully, it was engaging and enlightening! I couldn’t stop reading. He was such a talented and unique artist, I was familiar with his work but not with his story. Truly tragic. Thank you so much for sharing!! Keep up the amazing work!

  • C. H. Richard2 years ago

    Very informative story. Well done. Seeing his pictures also makes me think I have seen his work in storybooks etc.. Hearted.

  • The Dani Writer2 years ago

    An absolutely phenomenal piece of writing with content that is all levels engaging!

  • Lena Folkert2 years ago

    Okay. Wow! I knew a little of his story but this... I needed it today. And its beautiful. The art... love!

  • Sarah St.Erth2 years ago

    Such an interesting and tragic story. The descent into the schizophrenia makes me wonder if one of the causes of that illness is hyper production of dmt in the brain, as the later images remind me of some descriptions I have heard from people who take dmt intentionally. Fascinating!

  • Excellent story and love the image. Had never heard of him and an amazing illustrated descent into schizophrenia. Great writing.

Dharrsheena Raja SegarranWritten by Dharrsheena Raja Segarran

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