On Friday, the Portland Art Museum will hang the Austrian painter Carl Kahler’s 8.5-by-6-foot Gilded Age “meowsterpiece,” My Wife’s Lovers. The San Francisco art and cat collector Kate Birdsall Johnson originally commissioned the painting in 1891 as a tribute to her 42 beloved Persian and Angora cats, which reportedly had a staff all to themselves. Kahler spent a painstaking three years capturing the likeness and personality of each cat. In the end, no two felines “have the same expression. In each there is a distinct individuality,” reported a Chicago newspaper in 1893, the year it went on view as part of the Chicago World’s Fair. Presiding at the center of the canvas is a majestic calico named Sultan.
A 1949 article in Cat Magazine sealed the work’s reputation as “the world's greatest painting of cats."