Théophile Alexandre Steinlen (French/Swiss, 1923)


A native of Lausanne, Theohile-Alexandre Steinlen began his artistic career as a designer of printed fabrics.
In 1881 he moved to Paris, settling in Montmartre, and began to frequent the literary cabaret known as Le Chat Noir, founded by a fellow Swiss expatriate, Rodolphe Salis.
It was there Steinlen met and befriended writers such as Paul Verlaine and the artists Jean-Louis Forain, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Louis Anquetin, Henry Somm, Adolphe Willette, Felix Valotton and Emmanuel Poir known as Caran d’Ache, among others.
The artists of Le Chat Noir established something of a private club or society of aesthetes.
Steinlen was soon contributing illustrations to the associated journal Le Chat Noir, and the success of these set him on the road to becoming one of the foremost illustrators in Paris at the turn of the century.
At times using the pseudonym Jean Caillou, Steinlen submitted drawings to other satirical publications, including Le Mirliton and, from 1891 onwards, Gil Blas illustre, for whom he made over four hundred drawings.
It was the success of his work for Gil Blas illustroIe that established Steinlen’s reputation outside France. Among the more than thirty magazines to which he also contributed were Le Croquis, La Revue Illustree and Le Canard Sauvage.
Steinlen depicted all manner of Parisian society in his drawings and illustrations, with a particular emphasis on the life of the working class.
Like his contemporaries Toulouse-Lautrec and Alphonse Mucha, he was also active as a designer of theatrical and cabaret posters; an important means of disseminating his work and one that greatly added to his popularity.
A friend and collaborator of the songwriter Aristide Bruant, Steinlen provided illustrations for sheet music covers, and also illustrated a number of books, including Guy de Maupassant’s La Vagabond and Anatole Frances L’Affaire Crainquebille.
He enjoyed the first of many successful exhibitions of paintings and drawings in 1894, and in 1909 gained the distinction of a room devoted solely to his work at the Salon d’Automne.
As a draughtsman, Steinlen employed a wide variety of media, including black, blue and coloured chalks, ink, pencil, watercolour and charcoal.
His fondness for animals, and in particular cats, was noted even as early as his schooldays, when he drew sketches of cats in the margins of his notebooks.
Cats seem to have appealed to Steinlen for their charm, movement and character, as well as for their symbolic properties.
His house on the rue Caulaincourt in Paris was, according to contemporary accounts, a meeting place for all the cats of the quartier.
In his early, penurious years as an artist, he would sell drawings of cats in exchange for food, and in later years a cat would usually appear in most of his drawings, magazine illustrations, lithographs or posters, almost to the point of being a sort of signature.
Several of Steinlen’s studies of cats were compiled in an undated publication entitled Des chats; images sans paroles, while other, previously unknown drawings were published after the artist’s death in Georges Lecomte’s Chats at autres boes; dessins ints, which appeared in Paris in 1933.
This large, frieze-like drawing was one of a pair of drawings of cats intended to illustrate the margins of a special four-page supplement to the weekly journal L’Illustration, accompanying an article on cats by Jacques Dalbray published in March 1901.
Steinlen was born in Lausanne on 10 November 1859. He went to Paris at the age of 19 to live and devote himself to drawing professionally. Around 1880, he settled in Montmartre, the centre of the art community. He became one of the regular contributors to the journal Le Chat Noir, and soon began to draw for most of the humourist’s journals. Along with Le Chat Noir, he worked on Gil-Blas, Mirliton, Chambard, Rire, and L’Assiette au beurre. In 1911 he became one of 13 founding journalists of Les Humouristes with Forain, Willette, Leandre, J. Veber, etc., whose duration was unfortunately short-lived.

While Steinlen illustrated for the journals, he also completed some magnificent posters and other assorted pictures. He held exhibitions of his work at the Salon des Indépendants. Among these exhibitions were scenes of the countryside, nudes, portraits, and flowers, a very different and more personal side of the artist whom we know as a political and social satirist and illustrator.

Steinlen loved cats. At the beginning of his career, he drew them, painted them, and sculpted them. He tried to translate every imaginable subtlety of their poses and movements. This period of sculpture is little known, but the Museum of Berlin has conserved a piece called An Angora in Bronze.

He is a well known painter of the street, especially the suburbs and the popular quarters of Montmartre. His drawings are strong and his colours are unique. Steinlen regularly participated in the Salon des Humouristes and during the war (1914-1918), he devoted himself to portraying the misfortunes and hardships of the invasions of Belgium and Serbia. These works are some of the most poignant and inspiring depictions of the war.