Myth of psychotic cat artist busted


Who could forget these paintings of psychedelic cats from the Life Science Library book called The Mind? I loved studying them as a kid, and reading the story of the artist who painted them. According to the The Mind, Louis Wain was an artist who liked to paint cats, and as Wain's mental condition deteriorated, his cats became more and more abstract.

But the Mind Hacks blog says this is hogwash, according to a biography of Wain, by Rodney Dale called Louis Wain: The Man Who Drew Cats.

Assembling what little factual knowledge we have on [the] paintings, there is clear no justification for regarding them as more than samples of Louis Wain's art at different times. Wain experimented with patterns and cats, and even quite late in life was still producing conventional cat pictures, perhaps 10 years after his [supposedly] 'later' productions which are patterns rather than cats. All of which is to say no more than that the eight paintings were done at different times, which could be said of eight paintings by any artist!


  1. Wow. I remember seeing those pictures cited in psychology textbooks as an undergrad; kinda makes me more irked than ever at how blasted -expensive- those textbooks were =P Nevertheless I’m strangely glad to hear that those paintings aren’t truly (or at least, necessarily) reflective of the artist’s mental deterioration, it ALWAYS unsettled me deeply to “see into the descent” like that …

  2. Well… he still did go crazy and he definitely made some crazy paintings, so I’m still going to call him a crazy painter.

    Just don’t tell me Van Gogh was actually quite well-adjusted. I don’t think I could take it.

  3. I was blessed enough to grow up with the Life Science Library.
    I’m pretty sure my nephew has them at the moment.

    What a blast from the past. -and I do remember the thing with the cats and how it was supposed to have shown his mental deterioration!

    “Time” is also a very good book from that series, although “Drugs” disappeared during the 70s at some point. (Two older brothers, cough cough)

  4. This is awesome. I think we too easily assume creativity is the result of insanity or excessive drug use. It bugs the hell out of me for when someone looks at a piece of art and readily concludes with either description.

  5. to me, those paintings (if they really were in order) represent an advancement in existential insight, not a deterioration. but maybe i’m crazy too.

  6. Well, Wikipedia is sometimes worth as much as you pay for it, but — check this out, from the bio entry:

    < >


  7. Whups, re-pasting (MT comments blank out if you put text inside carets)


    [[Some speculate that the onset of Wain’s schizophrenia was precipitated by toxoplasmosis, a parasitic infection that can be contracted from cats. The theory that toxoplasmosis can trigger schizophrenia is controversial but is the subject of significant research]]


  8. Hey Ape Lad, why is that? I think “Myth of the psychotic cat artist” would be a stellar name for your memoirs..

  9. If that’s a sign of Wain’s “deterioration”, then I guess Picasso “detiorated” too? And Warhol was an OCD victim?

    Farking psychobabble.

  10. I don’t understand what “myth” got busted here. The pictures still are crazy, the painter still suffered from schizophrenia and died in an asylum and just because he might not have painted the pictures in the order as depicted before, they still freak me out. So: I don’t get in what way there was a myth busted, that piece of news is nothing more than a bubble of air.

  11. A golden vein of my childhood is now dross. Grr. In the true spirit of science, I must take in my thought patterns for an extensive alteration.

  12. This article made me go to the study room to pull out our copy of The Mind. Wow, it’s been years since I’ve looked at this! Good memories.

    Although– the 70s? I hadn’t realized this series of books was so old. I was an 80s kid, but I’m pretty sure my parents didn’t get the library until I was at least 10.

  13. aeiou11235, the myth is that schizophrenia caused the artist to paint images that were subsequently more and more abstracted. That was why they are arranged in that order, to show how his schizophrenia affected his painting over time. If these paintings were not created in this order then the article in the book and its argument that schizophrenia causes a “normal” painter to become an abstract painter holds absolutely no merit.

    I had forgotten about these images. I had seen them in my high school psychology book, and can remember being fascinated by them.

  14. I love Louis Wain’s art, Wallpaper Cats included.
    It would be terribly ironic if his ‘artistic temperament’ was caused by toxoplasmosis, wouldn’t it? Poor, dear Mr Wain!
    Some of his art, and other interesting descent into madness works are included at the Neuroscience Art Gallery

    but half of the links are broken.

  15. Those Time-Life books, which came out in the 60s by the way, were great. It’s thanks to them (the Mathematics, Matter, and The Scientist ) that I pursued a career in math. It’s a pity they don’t put them out any more. Instead they print out crap like “Psychic Mysteries” and other effluvia.

  16. while I admit to being an inveterate fan of the Time/Life Science library, which enriched my childhood quite a lot, I think I’m rising above that bias when I agree with aeiou11235.

    It takes more than simply questioning some evidence for a theory to make it a “myth…busted”. Even if there are more representational works when seen in time sequence, it’s well-known that the progression of schizophrenia is far from monotonic.

  17. I guess that myth was too perfect to be true.

    though I am sad it was false. That was one of my favorite pop psychology tales. ):

  18. Count me in as another of the people who read that book series as a kid. This was in the 1990s, my maternal grandparents had many books the series and I’d read them while visiting them, and they were often wildly outdated but certainly memorable; although the Mind was certainly a standout as by far the freakiest of the bunch.

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