Want to own a late 19th century’s premier painting of felines?
Tomorrow, on November 3, Sotheby’s will be auctioning “My Wife’s Lovers,” a 6′ x 8.5′ “meowsterpiece” by Austrian painter Carl Kahler.
photo credit: artinfo.com
“My Wife’s Lover’s” would be perfect above the fireplace mantel in any cat lover’s, or crazy cat lady’s home. All you need is a few hundred thousand dollars, and you own an elegant if slightly eccentric portrait of many different Persian and Angora cats in all their glory.
The story of this portrait is equally as fascinating as the portrait itself. Kate Birdsall Johnson (with a middle name like Birdsall why is she a cat and not a bird lover?) commissioned Carl Kahler to paint the piece in 1891. Kate Birdsall John was a rich crazy cat lady who loved fancy Persian and Angora cat breeds. It is said she housed 350 cats in her 3000-acre summer residence located near Sonoma, California.
Her cats were cared for by servants specifically hired to groom and feed them. For the entertainment of her cats, there were also parrots and cockatoos flitting around the mansion. Each cat had a name and knew to come running when that name was called.
It’s interesting to note that Kahler had never painted cats before even though he was expert at painting horse racing scenes in Australia and New Zealand. Mr. Kahler was invited to Mrs. Johnson’s home and for the next three years he painted individual portraits of her cats. His final masterpiece was named “My Wife’s Lovers” by Mr. Johnson.
The centerpiece cat is aptly named Sultan. Mrs. Johnson saw Sultan and absolutely had to have him for her collection of cats. She paid $3,000 for him while on a trip to Paris. Sultan is a regal cat with large green eyes. He knows he is king of the cats. Next to Sultan is His Highness, who with his bright blue eyes, claims Angora heritage.
In Kahler’s portrait, there are 42 cats in various poses. Of course, Sultan is the centerpiece. Mrs. Johnson ended up selling the portrait in 1884 due to her (pure speculation) financial difficulties.
Mrs. Johnson sent the portrait to the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair where it was the centerpiece of the great paintings display. Then in 1894, the painting was part of Mrs. Johnson’s estate auction, and Ernest Haquette purchased the piece. It was displayed in Haquette’s Palace of Art Salon until the salon was destroyed in the Great Quake. Fortunately, the painting survived.
“My Wife’s Lovers” went on tour through the United States in the 1940s and ended up in Madison Square Garden for a (how appropriate) cat-show. Kahler’s portrait of Mrs. Johnson’s cats so enamored visitors and cat fans that over 9,000 prints were ordered and sold. Cat Magazine as labeled this portrait “the world’s greatest painting of cats.” Indeed, it is a wonder that Carl Kahler got 42 cats to stay in the same room!
To put the portrait in perspective, it is now worth $200,000 to $300,000. That figures out to $4,651 to $6,976 per cat. A California newspaper editorial letter written in 2013 provided some additional context for the painting. It revealed the address of Fluffy, one of the remaining offspring from Kate’s cat home. It is not known if Fluffy is still living or has provided Kate Birdsall Johnson with great-great grand cats.
Perhaps Mrs. Johnson did not sell the painting due to financial difficulties after all. After her death, it was revealed that a gift of $500,000 was set aside for the perpetual care and feeding of her cats.
And the bidding begins…