Théophile Alexandre Steinlen (1859 – 1923)
Who doesn’t know the black cat, with his frayed tail and yellow eyes looking haughtily at the world? The title of the poster “Tournée du Chat Noir avec Rodolphe Salis” is probably not well-known, but one look in the eyes of this cat and no one could forget him. Who was the man behind this successful creation? A great artist or a big lover of cats? Probably both. That Steinlen was fond of cats is evident by the name of his Paris home: “Cat’s Cottage”.
The answer to the question if he was a great master of art is more difficult. Some art critics found him more of a journalist than an artist. Steinlen didn’t seem to understand the criticism, saying that “A real artist does not need to please anyone. He serves the truth, same as the scientist.”
‘Le Chat Noir’
Steinlen grew up in Switzerland in an environment where painting and drawing were both very common. As a teen he received drawing lessons in school. The intention was for him to finish his studies of Philosophy in Lausanne and then become a pastor. However, he left the university without ever receiving his diploma in 1879 and began to work in a textile factory, where he kept himself busy by designing textile. A few years later he and his wife left for Paris, encouraged by the painter Fracois-Louis David Bocion (1828-1890). In the artsy neighborhood of Montmartre Steinlen quickly met a group of cabaretiers, painters and composers, who frequented the club ‘Le Chat Noir’. His friend Rodolphe Salis organized many performances in the club that Steinlen would design posters for.
Storyteller or Artist?
Alongside Alphonse Mucha and Toulouse-Lautrec Steinlen was praised as one of the leaders in French poster design. The production of his posters is as diverse as his personality; one sober and serene while the other expressive and enthusiastic. Because he always adapted his style to the object that he was painting, he was seen as a “chronicler”, a storyteller rather than an artist. Others, however, praised his diversity and saw in it the signs of a true artist. His diverse nature can be seen in other aspects as well. He did not do only poster production, but also experimented with many forms of prints, drawings, oil paintings and bronze sculptures. But in his love for cats, however, Steinlen was very consistent: throughout his entire life these animals played a large role in his art.
The Cat in Steinlen
Throughout the 19th century the cat in art became a symbol for poetry, for longing without a face, a name, as well as a symbol of creativity and invention and of a life without limits or rules. It is said that Steinlen showed the cat in all of these forms, but in a way that made it seem as if he himself had experienced them. The smallest movements, the most subtle of impulses, the deepest dreams; all are portrayed by the artist as if he was equal to them. The life of the cat, in sleep, elegant as a cougar in the jungle or waiting on the doormat with a quizzical look; no form seemed strange to Steinlen, a master at understanding the cat..