Some paintings capture the imagination, and others garner headlines. Every once in a while, a painting manages to do both, and for the right reasons. One painting that does both is Carl Kahler’s My Wife’s Lovers.
At first glance, it’s a painting featuring a lot of cats. To be exact, there are 42 cats in the celebrated painting. So, what makes this piece of artwork so notable? We’ll take a look at the story behind the painting and the artistic techniques used in My Wife’s Lovers.
Getting to Know the Artist
My Wife’s Lovers was commissioned in 1891 by Kate Birdsall Johnson. A millionairess from San Francisco, she was an avid lover of cats. Rumors still swirl around the number of cats she supposedly owned, ranging from 50 up to 350. However, most experts agree the number is closer to 50, simply because it seems a little more manageable than owning hundreds of cats.
The painting’s artist, Carl Kahler, was primarily famous in New Zealand and Australia before eventually meeting Mrs. Johnson in 1891. His fame was primarily centered around horses and race tracks. A surprising fact is he never painted a cat before creating this painting. In fact, he spent three years following Mrs. Johnson’s cats around, creating sketches before even attempting to start the painting.
Thankfully, she had plenty of subjects for him to study and follow. After three years of studying cats, Carl Kahler created what was to become his masterpiece.
The Story of Sultan
In the painting My Wife’s Lovers, a gorgeous white Persian cat takes center stage. The cat is named Sultan, and the Persian has his own story to tell. During a vacation in Paris, Mrs. Johnson came upon the cat. She immediately fell in love with the cat’s luxurious fur and brilliant green eyes.
Unfortunately, Sultan’s owners were in no mood to sell their cat, much to the disappointment of Mrs. Johnson. Don’t worry, she didn’t catnap the feline. Instead, she made an offer the cat’s owners could not refuse. She offered three times the cat’s value in cash and returned home to San Francisco with Sultan in tow.
So, how much did she pay for Sultan? Mrs. Johnson paid $3,000. In the late 1800s, $3,000 was an exorbitant sum of money. For some, the amount is more than they make in a year.
The Painting’s Name and Composition
Where did Carl Kahler get the name for his famous painting? Actually, he is not responsible for the name. Mrs. Katie Johnson is responsible for the title. It’s thought that the painting’s name is a nod to her late husband. While he passed away before the painting’s commission, he used to refer to Katie’s cats as ‘My wife’s lovers,’ so she repurposed the name to use for the painting.
The painting’s composition is relatively simple, but it is also effective. Sultan’s the star, and his place in the center highlights Mrs. Johnson’s fondness for the Persian cat. The remaining 41 cats are arranged in either family groups or are solo. If you look closely, you can see some of the cats closely watching a moth.
Carl Kahler used oil paints to create the stunning work of art, which was a common medium in the late 1800s.
The Painting’s Survival and Travels
After the painting’s finish, it traveled to the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. Yes, it was an instant hit and this helped lead to its quick sale in 1893 after Katie Johson’s death.
Ernest Harquette, also of San Francisco purchased the painting from her estate sale in 1894 where it hung in his Palace of Art Salon until the devastating earthquake of 1906. While the salon was destroyed, the painting miraculously survived.
In the 1940s, the painting went on tour across the United States. By now, Mr. and Mrs. Julian of Chicago were the proud owners. The painting even made an appearance at the 1940 Cat Show held at Madison Square Gardens. The painting was such a hit it sold 9,000 prints. Cat Magazine went on to call it the “World’s greatest painting of cats” in 1949.
The Size, Weight, and Staggering Auction Price
By 2015, My Wife’s Lovers made it to Sotheby’s auction house. The artwork’s large size and impressive weight forced the auction house to erect a special wall for the painting. So how big is My Wife’s Lovers? The oil on canvas painting measures 70 by 101 3/4 inches and with the gilt frame, weighs 227 pounds, meaning it’s not a painting you can easily move around.
The painting’s value is estimated between $200,000 and $300,000. For a painting with cats as the subject, the value is already making headlines—however, media attention on the painting skyrocketed after a bidding war broke out. My Wife’s Lovers eventually ultimately sold for a staggering $826,000 by an anonymous collector based in California.
The buyer purchased the painting in remembrance of their mother and is quoted saying “I bought a print of it for her, and it hung in her living room until she passed away at 91. Its California history made it all the better,”
The stunning price also makes My Wife’s Lovers one of the most expensive paintings of cats. Something artist Carl Kahler probably did not expect when he was commissioned to paint cats.
A Painting That is a Testament to a Women’s Love of Cats
Mrs. Johnson’s love of cats is well documented, along with her patronage of the arts. Throughout her life, she typically kept around 50 cats on her 3,000-acre San Francisco property. While she adored all cats, she had her favorite breeds. All of her cats were either Persians or Angoras, as these two breeds were popular in American and European society circles.
After her death, she didn’t leave her estate to her cats—instead, she left an adequate sum to look out for their care and well-being. The majority of her estate was bequeathed to establishing a hospital for less fortunate women and children in San Francisco. At the end of the day, My Wife’s Lovers is a deep, touching testament to one woman’s love of cats.