The history of what has been referred to as “one of the finest cat pictures in the world” (Oakland Tribune, February 4, 1930, p. 50) dates back to the early 1890s when it was commissioned by cat enthusiast, Kate Birdsall Johnson of San Francisco. In 1891 Mrs. Johnson, possibly America’s greatest cat enthusiast, commissioned artist Carl Kahler to paint a portrait of some of her 350 cats who all lived in great luxury in her California home.
This monumental work – ‘My Wife’s Lovers’ – will be an important highlight of Sotheby’s 19th Century European Art sale on 3 November in New York.
The painting is six feet tall and eight-and-a-half feet wide, and weighs a whopping 227 pounds and while rumor has it Mrs. Johnson owned anywhere from 50 to 350 cats at any given time, the artist, who had never painted a cat before, was paid $5,000 for his work. The title, 'My Wife’s Lovers' is attributed to Ms. Johnson's husband, who obviously had a dry sense of humor.
So how did the artist get all these cats to remain still at the same time?
Well, according to Polly Sartori, head of 19th Century European paintings for Sotheby's in New York, who told Canadian television and radio journalist, Caroline Off in an interview, Kahler sketched each cat individually. "No way did 42 cats sit still to have their portrait painted," she said with a laugh."He was invited to her cat ranch. Now, Mrs. Johnson actually was very wealthy. She was a millionaire and she had this giant mansion. Some newspapers report that she had 350 [cats]. So Carl Kahler meets Mrs. Johnson at the ranch, at the mansion, and she asks him if he would paint a portrait of her cats," explains Sartori. "So, for three years he spends time with the cats in the mansion doing sketches. And then in and around 1893, he does their portrait. He takes all of the sketches and he puts together this monumental-sized giant painting of 42 of her cats." The artwork is estimated to sell for $200,000–300,000.