Text borrowed from Sotheby’s
Do cats have nine lives? While more than 3,000 people perished in the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906, Carl Kahler’s monumental canvas depicting 42 larger than life sized cats survived the destruction and devastation. 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.
Mrs. Johnson was a millionaire and she loved cats, especially fancy Persian and Angora breeds. She housed 350 cats in her 3000 acre summer residence, Buena Vista, located near Sonoma, California. There, her pets were cared for by a troop of servants hired specifically for this purpose, and entertained by parrots and cockatoos, which coexisted with the feline community in the Johnson mansion. Each cat had a name, and recognized that name when called (Durling, p. 6).
In 1891, Mrs. Johnson commissioned the artist Carl Kahler to paint her cats. Kahler was Austrian by birth, but had established his career primarily as a painter of horse racing scenes in Australia and New Zealand, where he had worked for seven years. Upon arriving in the United States, his plan was to travel to Yosemite to make nature studies, but while in San Francisco, he was invited to visit Mrs. Johnson’s cat ranch. Although Kahler had never painted a cat before, Mrs. Johnson hired him and for the next three years he sketched her cats in a variety of poses, thus becoming acquainted with their individual personalities and traits. The culmination of his work was our painting, titled My Wife’s Lovers, a title supposedly assigned by Mrs. Johnson’s husband.
The seated cat in the center of the composition was named Sultan. Mrs. Johnson found him irresistible and paid $3,000 for him during a trip to Paris. “He attracted her fancy, but she was told that he was not for sale. She asked what his value was, and then offered twice the amount, and brought Sultan home with her. He is a big, handsome cat, with a tawny brown coat with splashes of yellow in it and a white breast, and large green eyes” (Davis, p. 12). Directly to Sultan’s left may be a cat called His Highness, a superb white Angora with bright blue eyes. His Highness appears in another painting by Kahler, seated on a table covered with a blue embroidered Japanese silk curtain (Davis p. 12). Together with Sultan and His Highness, forty other felines complete this extraordinary group portrait; their poses and expressions first captured in the individual sketches created by Kahler over a span of three years.
Mrs. Johnson lent My Wife’s Lovers to the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, where it became an immediate sensation (Final Report of the World’s Fair Commission, Chicago, p. 58.). Soon after Mrs. Johnson’s estate auction of 1894, the painting was acquired by fellow San Franciscan Ernest Haquette who displayed it in his “Palace of Art Salon,” which was destroyed in the Great Quake. My Wife’s Lovers was next hung in Frank C. Havens’ Piedmont Art Gallery, a public museum, where it attracted further admirers. Later owners, Mr. and Mrs. Julian of Chicago, sent My Wife’s Lovers on tour through the United States in the 1940s and to Madison Square Garden for, appropriately, a cat-show. With the Julian’s promotion, Kahler’s work became so popular that 9,000 prints were sold after the original painting, and in 1949, Cat Magazine called it “the world’s greatest painting of cats.” (Robert Reed, “Inside Antiques,” http://www.waybacktimes.com). But this is not the end of the story. Even after her death Mrs. Johnson continued to cherish her cats; her will stipulated a gift of $500,000 to guarantee their perpetual care and comfort.