Published: January 25, 2016
PORTLAND, ORE. —The Portland Art Museum is displaying what is called “the greatest cat painting ever made.” Carl Kahler’s “My Wife’s Lovers” is a massive painting commissioned by San Francisco philanthropist Kate Birdsall Johnson in 1891. The 6-by-8½-foot canvas, which features 42 of the millionaire’s beloved cats, was seen at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, survived the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and now makes a stop in one of the cat-friendliest cities in the United States.
“My Wife’s Lovers” was commissioned by San Francisco millionaire Kate Birdsall Johnson (1833–1894) to commemorate her fabulous collection of 42 Persian and Angora cats. She met the artist and world traveler Carl Kahler in 1890, shortly after he arrived in California from Australia, where he had earned fame painting portraits and horse racing scenes. Johnson persuaded him to portray her beloved pets and he spent months studying them in preparatory sketches and paintings. In the finished composition, he depicted the cats larger than life size.
At the painting’s center is the pride of the collection, a magnificent Persian named Sultan, who was purchased in Paris for a huge sum. Around him, outstanding individuals and family groups are depicted from virtually every angle and with a wide range of personality traits. Kahler enlivened the scene with anecdotal details, such as the cats stalking a moth and, of course, much playful feline interaction.
The painting was not titled “My Wife’s Lovers” by Johnson’s husband, the iron and hardware heir Robert C. Johnson, who had died two years before, in 1889. According to Dawson Carr, the Janet and Richard Geary curator of European art, it seems likely that he coined the expression to refer to the cats and that his widow adopted it for the title.
“The painting has inspired a number of absurd legends,” said Carr. “It has been erroneously reported that Johnson had as many as 350 cats and that she left them $500,000 in her will. In fact, there were never many more animals than those depicted here. Johnson left a modest amount to a relative for their maintenance. Her principal bequest established a hospital for disadvantaged women and children in San Francisco.”
The artist perished in the earthquake of 1906. His painting survived that disaster, and in 1949, Cat Magazine lauded it as “the world’s greatest painting of cats.” It most recently sold for $826,000 at Sotheby’s on November 3, 2015. Achieving more than twice its high estimate and setting a world auction record for a painting by the artist, it was offered in the firm’s Nineteenth Century European art sale. It will be on loan to the Portland Art Museum by its new owners, John and Heather Mozart of northern California.
Art and cat lovers await the painting eagerly, with social media hashtags such as #meowsterpiece and #purrtlandartmuseum.
The Portland Art Museum is at 1219 SW Park Avenue. For information, 503-226-2811 or www.portlandartmuseum.org.
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