This painting by Carl Kahler, named My Wife’s Lovers, was commissioned by cat enthusiast Kate Birdsall Johnson of San Francisco in 1891.
According to Sotheby's auctioneers in New York, Johnson was a millionaire who adored cats, particularly Persian and Angora breeds. Her house was home to 350 cats in her 3,000-acre summer residence, Buena Vista, located near Sonoma, California. Her feline companions were cared for by a troop of servants and each cat had a name.
When Johnson commissioned Kahler to paint her pets, he claimed to have never painted a cat before. Kahler spent three years sketching the cats and learning their personalities and habits. The painting, described in the Sotheby's catalogue as “One of the finest cat pictures in the world”, was supposedly given the title My Wife’s Lovers by Johnson's long-suffering husband.
The cat sat in the centre of the painting was named Sultan.
"Mrs. Johnson found [Sultan] 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.'" —Harley Davis, author of Kahler, the Cat Painter (Sotheby's catalogue note)
To Sultan's left is a white Angora with bright blue eyes, which is thought to have been called His Highness.
After Johnson's death, her will kept her prized pets in the lifestyle to which they were accustomed; $500,000 was left to their continued care.
My Wife’s Lovers will be auctioned on 3 November at Sotheby’s New York.
Matt Tucker is the UK Picture Editor for BuzzFeed and is based in London.
Contact Matthew Tucker at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.