Do you recognize this work of art? If so, you have already had your introduction to the artistry of Theophile Steinlen. While not all of his artwork was cat themed, hundreds of pieces were. Above is probably one of Steinlen’s most famous works of art. Featuring a rugged black cat (chat noir in french), this poster is an advertisement for a traveling tour of the Chat Noir cabaret.  This piece is a staple for any French Art Nouveau collector – thousands of prints have been sold.

“You will always be lucky if you know how to make friends with strange cats.” – Colonial proverb

Steinlen sculpting cat - press photograph - Agence Meurisse _From Gallica_

Photograph of Steinlen sculpting a cat.

Theophile Steinlen was born in Switzerland in 1859. Before moving to Paris at the age of 19, Steinlen studied at the University of Lausanne and had an apprenticeship as a designer of printed textiles.  At the insistance of a friend, Steinlen made the move to the Montmartre area of Paris to dedicate himself to his art.

In 1883, Steinlen was introduced to the artistic (and rather eccentric) culture of the Chat Noir cabaret. The Chat Noir had been  founded by Rodolphe Salis (a fellow  Swiss ex-patriot) in 1881.  It was at the Chat Noir  that Steinlen would find the collaborators that would make his work famous.

A book written by Emilie Zola (a collaborator from the Chat Noir cabaret) called L’Assommoir  changed the way the Steinlen looked at the world. It is a novel about a french working class woman and the plight she and her family face as her husband (and eventually the woman as well) slip into alcoholism.  Steinlen found great empathy with the poor after reading the novel and much of his work began showing the darker side of Parisian life. He depicted the down trodden, the prostitutes, and the working class people.

Steinlen illustrated for over 30 different journals of the time including “Le Chat Noir,” “Le Mirliton,” and “Gil Blas Illustre.” In 1911, he was also a co-founder of the journal “Les Humorists.” Steinlen took a strong antiwar stance against World War I; Illustrations of the devastation of areas affected by the war were used to get his point across. He often used the psuedonym  Jean Caillou when do illustrations that criticized the government and elite members of society.

“Every dog has its day, but the nights are reserved for cats.”  -Steinlen

There is no doubt that Steinlen was fascinated by cats. Cats were in much of his art work – illustrations, prints, paintings, and sculptures.  He studied the subtleties and movement of cats very closely. In the book Des chats; images sans paroles(Cats: Pictures without Words), Steinlen released many drawings of his studies of cats. It is said that Steinlen’s house was a gathering place for all of the local cats. Even more (then unseen) cat drawings were released by Georges Lecomte after Steinlen’s death in 1923.

All images on this post are courtesy of Steinlen.net . Click to see the full-size image.