The amusing history of an 1891 painting of 42 cats
If you have not yet seen Carl Kahler’s My Wife’s Lovers, I urge you to do so.
Commissioned in 1891 by millionaire and philanthropist Kate Birdsall Johnson, the work features her 42 Persian and Angora cats. A mix of kittens and cats stand poised on Rococo furniture while others are sprawled against a lavish velvet curtain.
Painted by Austrian artist Carl Kahler, the work took three years to complete. According to the Portland Art Museum, this is supposedly because he spent months studying them in preparatory sketches and paintings.
The oil painting, which is 6 by 8.5 feet in size, and weighs roughly 227 pounds, depicts the cats to be larger-than-life. And yes, each and every one of the 42 cats, meticulously painted, belonged to Birdssall Johnson. Despite the Portland Art Museum claiming it to be a falsity, many sources such as Architectural Digest and Sotheby’s declare that the work depicts only 42 of the woman’s 350 cats.
According to an article in the New York Post, the elegant and collected cat that stands at the centre of the painting was a US $3,000 cat named Sultan which she bought during a trip to Paris.
According to many sources, such as the New York Post, it is rumoured that the painting was a gift from her husband, Robert C. Johnson, and that he chose the title My Wife’s Lovers. However, Dawson Carr, curator at the Portland Art Museum states that her husband, in fact, died two years prior but adds that it is a possibility he had used the phrase to refer to her collection of cats in the past and that Birdsall Johsnon simply deemed it fitting as a title for the monumental painting.
Birdsall Johnson reportedly paid approximately US $5,000 in 1891 for the work, which is equivalent to around US $143,000 in 2021.
The work was estimated at a value of $200,000 to US $300,000 by Sotheby’s in 2015 and sold at auction for nearly three times its estimate, at US $826,000 by an anonymous buyer in California.
If you didn’t think it was crazy enough that a lady paid over $140,000 for a painting of her cats, just think that someone paid over half a million for cats that didn’t even belong to them. Another rumour even states that she left her cats over US $500,000 in her will.
My Wife’s Lovers has ignited many rumours. Whether false or not, Birdsall Johnson has proven to be the ultimate crazy cat lady.
Graphic by Taylor Reddam.