Is she a crazy cat lady or just an eccentric cat lover? Kate Birdsall Johnson loved cats, especially long-haired breeds such as Persians and Angoras. Rumour has it that 350 – or so – cats lived at her summerhouse in Sonoma, California. The truth of the matter is that she probably never owned more than 50 cats at any one time. Still a significant number considering each of her precious felines had a name and would reportedly come to her when called. Fortunately, thanks to her husband’s mining fortune, she also had the funds to keep the lucky felines living in the lap of luxury with parrots, cockatiels and aquariums to amuse them and their own staff of servants dedicated to nothing but the care of the cats.
Living in the mid to late 1800’s, the term “crazy cat lady” had not yet been coined and there were no cat-fancier shows, clubs or associations. She was considered “eccentric” in her time for her love of so many cats, but was even more devoted to her husband. When he became ill while abroad she immediately went to Paris and stayed by his bedside until his death. It is quite possible that she acquired her favourite cat, Sultan, during her time in France. Sadly, Mrs. Johnson also lost her only child, a disabled, adopted daughter named Roslind, one year after her husband’s death. Finding herself widowed and childless she sought solace with her cats.
Aside from her love of cats Mrs. Johnson was also a patron of the arts and a philanthropist. In 1891 she commission Karl Kahler to paint a portrait of her cats. Kahler spent three years on Mrs. Johnson’s estate sketching the cats and getting to know their personalities. The result of all this time and sketching is a painting measuring 6 feet by 8 feet and weighing in at about 200 pounds (including the gilt frame), featuring 42 cats with Sultan, the favourite, holding court in the center of the painting.
The painting was featured at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, survived the San Francisco earthquake and fire in 1906 (which killed the artist, Karl Kahler) and traveled on a cross-country tour in the 1940’s.
Kate Birdsall Johnson died in December, 1893. Depending on which reports one chooses to believe she bequeathed either $20,000 or $500,000 for the perpetual care of her cats. Despite the bequest apparently the cats languished and some even turned feral. One Sonoma resident claims to own a descendant of the Johnson estate cats.
The origin of the name of the painting, “MY WIFE'S LOVERS” remains a mystery. While credit is given to Mr. Johnson, this is not possible since he died before the painting was commissioned.
Sotheby’s sold the painting in 2015 for a whopping $826,000. While “My Wife’s Lovers” is physically the largest cat painting ever sold it is by no means the most expensive; in 2006 “DORA MAAR WITH CAT” by Picasso sold for $95.2 million.
I know which painting I like ... which painting do you prefer?
Sources for this blog post include