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If you’re a cat lover, it would take something spectacular before you’d refer to any artwork as “the greatest cat painting in the world.” If it’s not a painting of your cat, then is it really even great? Probably not in your eyes! Nevertheless, there is one giant painting that is still often called the greatest, commissioned by a San Francisco millionaire philanthropist, Kate Birdsall Johnson.

It’s called ‘My Wife’s Lovers’ by Austrian artist Carl Kahler, and Johnson commissioned it of her cats in 1891.

World-Famous Cat Painting

Johnson’s painting is still getting attention online over 133 years later. And if you type her name in a search engine, you’re likely to see this painting rise to the top.

Kate Birdsall Johnson, Carl Kahler, Portland Art Museum, My Wife's Lovers, Robert C. Johnson, Oregon Humane Society, cat painting, Sultan the Persian Cat, world's greatest cat painting, cat lady, John and Heather Mozart, whole painting

My Wife’s Lovers via Wikipedia

Although she did many things in life, she’s now mostly known for this painting and exaggerated stories painting her as an eccentric ‘cat lady.’ So, we might include this story as one of the first examples of what started the cat lady stereotypes in the United States!

Kate Birdsall Johnson, Carl Kahler, Portland Art Museum, My Wife's Lovers, Robert C. Johnson, Oregon Humane Society, cat painting, Sultan the Persian Cat, world's greatest cat painting, cat lady, John and Heather Mozart, 5

Kate Birdsall Johson with filters via Menlo Park Historical Association, 2021

When the painting went up for auction, Sotheby’s said  Birdsall Johnson “might be the greatest cat enthusiast in US history.” The Smithsonian called the artwork “possibly the greatest cat tribute ever created by human hands,” and the New York Post suggested Johnson might be “likely the world’s first cat lady.”

Knowing cats and feline lovers as we do, these accolades are a stretch. However, it might be the tongue-in-cheek title of “My Wife’s Lovers” that’s the best part. It appears to refer to Johnson’s late husband’s nickname for her cats. Yet Robert C. Johnson passed away in 1889. But it wasn’t until 1890 that Kate met the artist. Thus, it’s not clear why the painting had that title. Was it Kate’s idea or the artists? We don’t know, but the funny title still gets attention.

 

 
 
 
 
 
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A post shared by Sotheby’s (@sothebys)

 

A Heavy and Expensive Cat Painting!

Say what you want about the lavish artwork, but My Wife’s Lovers is big, measuring 6 feet × 8.5 feet. (1.8 m × 2.6 m), 227 pounds, and framed in gold like it could hang in the finest museum. So, some also call it the “world’s largest cat painting,” although that seems likely another stretch. The cats are, however, painted larger than life-size in great detail.

Kate Birdsall Johnson, Carl Kahler, Portland Art Museum, My Wife's Lovers, Robert C. Johnson, Oregon Humane Society, cat painting, Sultan the Persian Cat, world's greatest cat painting, cat lady, John and Heather Mozart, 4

detail

It may or may not be the largest, but the framed painting was so heavy that Sotheby’s had to create a special wall to hold it after it ripped the nails off the wall. 

In 2015, My Wife’s Lovers sold for $826,000 to a couple in northern California who also collect fine antiques and Elvis Presley memorabilia. The price tag ended up being almost three times its estimated value. Even so, it went on display in the Portland Art Museum before eventually going home to the couple’s private collection.

Kate Birdsall Johnson, Carl Kahler, Portland Art Museum, My Wife's Lovers, Robert C. Johnson, Oregon Humane Society, cat painting, Sultan the Persian Cat, world's greatest cat painting, cat lady, John and Heather Mozart, 3

Considering the price, it earns a place among the largest and most expensive cat paintings ever. Not bad for the artist’s first painting of cats. Prior to the commission, Kahler generally painted portraits and horse racing scenes. Before starting, the artist spent three years studying and sketching felines to get it just right.

The Painting Helped the Oregon Humane Society

While on display, the Portland museum partnered with the Oregon Human Society, bringing “look-alike cats” that resembled kitties in the painting. Visitors could meet real cats and consider adopting them while viewing the painting.

Kate Birdsall Johnson, Carl Kahler, Portland Art Museum, My Wife's Lovers, Robert C. Johnson, Oregon Humane Society, cat painting, Sultan the Persian Cat, world's greatest cat painting, cat lady, John and Heather Mozart, 1

Image via Facebook/Oregon Humane Society (2016)

“It will be interesting to see what the cats of OHS think of the painting. “I don’t know if the painting captures the ‘je ne sais quoi’ of a cat’s essence,” said OHS feline guest, Bruce (pictured). “Our existence can’t be reduced to a mere canvas,” the Oregon Humane Society shared.

Kate Birdsall Johnson, Carl Kahler, Portland Art Museum, My Wife's Lovers, Robert C. Johnson, Oregon Humane Society, cat painting, Sultan the Persian Cat, world's greatest cat painting, cat lady, John and Heather Mozart, 2

Image via Facebook/Oregon Humane Society (2016)

Video by The Oregonian about the exhibit:

 

A Beloved ‘Sultan’

Some of Johnson’s beloved Persian and Turkish Angora cats are grouped with the focal point of Sultan, a Persian of stunning cost. Reports suggest Sultan cost Johnson a whopping $3000 on a trip to Paris. At first, a story goes he wasn’t for sale, but at that price in the 1800s, he was!

Sultan was the literal King of the Castle among many cats, with stories claiming she had some 350 cats (another exaggeration). An entire floor may have been set aside for the cats in the ‘Castle,’ a 6,000-acre summer residence in Buena Vista, California. For the widow, these cats no doubt meant a great deal to her and they lived a wonderful life.

Kate Birdsall Johnson, Carl Kahler, Portland Art Museum, My Wife's Lovers, Robert C. Johnson, Oregon Humane Society, cat painting, Sultan the Persian Cat, world's greatest cat painting, cat lady, John and Heather Mozart, detail 1

Sultan stands proudly in the middle

In reality, the details about how many cats were there are disputed, as well as stories that she left the cats $500,000 in her willThese are probably overstatements for dramatic effect. Meanwhile, it’s not disputed that the cats were well-cared for during her life. Stories suggest they had their own “troop of servants.”

The Cat Painting May Never Have Hung In the Castle!

Sadly, Johnson only lived a couple of years after the painting was commissioned in 1891. And it may never have hung in her home because the same year, she lent the painting to the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. There, it caused a sensation. Not long afterward, Ernest Haquette purchased it, and it went to the Palace of Art Salon in San Francisco. 

Shortly after that, disaster struck again in 1906 when the artist Kahler sadly died in the San Francisco earthquake at age 51. The major earthquake also destroyed the salon, yet the painting was one of the few that survived. In the 1940s, it went on to tour the country and go on display for a cat show in Madison Square Garden. Shortly afterward, in 1949Cat Magazine dubbed the painting “The world’s greatest painting of cats.”  

The couple who eventually bought My Wife’s Lovers, John and Heather Mozart, had a sentimental reason, associating it with John Mozart’s late mother.

“I purchased My Wife’s Lovers by Carl Kahler based on my mother’s fond memories of the image. 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.”

Thus, the real importance is about these women and the real joy cats brought them in their lives. And the painting certainly is something too!

Video by Amuze Art Lectures:

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