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A historic event occurred recently when the 19th century painting “My Wife's Lovers' was auctioned at Sotheby's for $826,000. Weighing approximately 227 pounds, the painting features a massive depiction of well over 40 different cats. Painted by Carl Kahler, this particular cat-centric scene was commissioned by Kate Birdsall, a San Franciso-based philanthropist who wished to commemorate the all-important felines in her life before she passed away. The painting was completed only two years before Birdsall passed away. As part of her will, Birdsall left $500,000 to ensure that her cats were properly tended to after her passing.
According to the auctioneers at Sotheby's, the painting was originally expected to sell for a price between $200,000 – $300,000. Therefore, when the final bid came in at well over four times the value of their lowest estimate, Sotheby's auctioneers were shocked. The painting had captivated Sotheby's employees, many of whom had taken photographs of themselves standing in front of the portrait. Obviously, the unique nature of this painting had struck a chord with a wide spectrum of individuals.
The name of the painting, “My Wife's Lovers”, was coined by Birdsall's husband, who found his wife's fascination of cats to be both endearing and humorous. According to rumours, Birdsall was said to have possessed up to 350 cats at any given time. The felines were given their own floor in the Birdsall's mansion in Sonoma County. Those familiar with the family have also stated that Kate Birdsall hired servants specifically to tend to her cats. When creating the painting, Kahler spent nearly three years observing Birdsall's cats, taking note of their various personality traits and behaviours. Ultimately, this “research period” helped the painter create an authentic representation of each of Birdsall's beloved animals. Featuring such love and dedication on the part of both the commissioner and the artist, it should come as no surprise that “My Wife's Lovers” became the central attraction during the auction.
The immense weight of “My Wife's Lovers” has made the painting somewhat notorious in professional art circles. According to the staffers at Sotheby's, the painting pulled the nails out of the wall when hung for the first time. The physical dimensions of the painting measure in at six feet tall by 8.5 feet wide.
If anything, the auctioning of this painting further reinforces the notion that animals have become indispensable and cherished elements of our daily lives. Although it is quite unlikely that most individuals will have the opportunity to commission a full-scale portrait of their cats, it is not uncommon for animal owners to snap pictures of their pets using their smartphones. Perhaps, this contemporary trend is a direct derivation from Kahler's work over a century before.
Humans have long had a tendency to prescribe sophisticated emotions and thoughts to their pets. This type of association can be used to help explain why so many of us form such lasting attachments to our pets. Although Birdsall owned a myriad of cats in her lifetime, it is quite interesting to observe the small collection of animals presented in this painting, if only due to the fact that their portrait so clearly manifests their distinct personalities and character traits. Far from being an emotionally vacant still life, “My Wife's Lovers” is full of personality, character and, most importantly, human emotion. Viewers cannot help but to connect on some level with the various personality types demonstrated by each of the cats in the painting. This is, perhaps, what has made this painting become such an unforgettable landmark within the history of 19th century visual art.