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."
Johnson paid $5,000 for the painting, which was a pretty penny in those days, but nothing compared to the $826,000 that the northern California buyers John and Heather Mozart spent on it at Sotheby’s in November (more than tripling the presale estimate of $200,000-$300,000). Afterward, Mozart told Architectural Digest that the purchase paid homage to “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.”
The Portland museum is the painting’s first stop since the auction, and a fitting host for “such a delightfully over-the-top painting,” says a spokesman for the museum, Ian Gillingham. “Our museum is not only one of the prominent art institutions on the West Coast, but also nimble enough to accommodate a ‘pop-up’ loan exhibition like this in our schedule. As you can imagine, we're just happy to be able to offer the experience to our visitors and our region.”
The snowstorm in the northeast delayed the massive, 227-pound painting’s arrival from New York this past week, but the museum expects to have a hit on its hands all the same. Portlanders have already been anticipating its arrival on social media with the hashtags #meowsterpiece and #purrtlandartmuseum. During the museum’s $5 Fridays, visitors can take photo-booth selfies with a cut-out print of the image.
My Wife’s Lovers will be on view “at least through April,” according to the museum. In the meantime, it will also be the subject of special pop-up events co-organized with the Oregon Humane Society.
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