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ARTISTS / Steinlen, Théophile Alexandre

Swiss/French 1859-1923
"Théophile Alexandre Steinlen was an illustrator, printmaker, painter and sculptor, born in Lausanne, Switzerland. After studying at the University of Lausanne and working as an apprentice designer in a textile factory in Mulhouse, Steinlen arrived in Paris in 1881 and quickly established himself in Montmartre, where he lived and worked for the rest of his life. In 1883 the illustrator Adolphe Willette introduced him to the avant-garde literary and artistic environment of the Chat Noir cabaret which had been founded in 1881 by another Swiss expatriot, Rodolphe Salis. Steinlen soon became an illustrator of its satirical and humorous journal, Chat Noir, and an artistic collaborator with writers such as Emile Zola, poets such as Jean Richepin, composers such as Paul Delmet, artists such as Toulouse-Lautrec and, most important, the singer and songwriter Aristide Bruant, all of whom he encountered at the Chat Noir. BruantÕs lyrics incorporate the argot of the poor, the worker, the rogue, the pimp and the prostitute, for whom Steinlen's empathy had been awakened on reading Zola's novel L'Assommoir (1877). Steinlen became the principal illustrator for Bruant's journal Le Mirliton (1885-96) and for the various books containing his songs and monologues, including the two volumes of Dans la rue (1888-95).

Steinlen created over 2000 illustrations for journals and books using the newly developed photo-relief printing processes and about 500 lithographic images for individual prints, music sheets, book covers and book illustrations as well as over 100 etchings. Throughout his long career SteinlenÕs art was dominated by his humanitarian concerns, exemplified during the 1890s by hundreds of covers for Gil Blas illustre accompanying the short stories of contemporary realist authors such as Guy de Maupassant. His work for the covers of the journals Chambard socialiste (1893-4) and Feuille (1897-8) reveal his anti-bourgeois, anti-military, socialist/anarchist sympathies, which at the time of the Dreyfus affair (1894-1906) placed him actively on the side of the Dreyfusards. These were followed in the early 20th century by his illustrations for Assiette au beurre and Canard sauvage, both journals of social and political satire.

While Steinlen is best known for his bold, highly stylized black and red poster for the Chat Noir (1896), his greatest contribution to the poster art of the 1890s was his production of realistic colour lithographic images such as Mothu et Doria (1893), Lait pur sterilise de la vingeanne (1894), the massive, life-size La Rue (1896) and the politically poignant Petit sou (1900), which indirectly advertised products by conveying human sympathies and ideals. Between 1898 and 1902 he also executed over 30 colour etchings which are more personal and intimate. In these delicate etchings of nudes and landscapes, produced in very small editions, Steinlen experimented with the media of softground and aquatint. During World War I he designed patriotic prints, for example his lithograph The Republic Calls Us and his etching of The Mobilization (both 1915).

As a prolific and realistic illustrator Steinlen was better known to the general public than Toulouse-Lautrec, whose work was considered stylistically more avant-garde, yet the two artists had in common such subjects as the cabaret performers Bruant and Yvette Guilbert and the theme of prostitution. Steinlen's empathetic depictions of the poor influenced the early work of many artists who emerged at the beginning of the 20th century such as Picasso and Edward Hopper.

During the first decade of the 20th century Steinlen created numerous small and medium-sized bronzes of cats in repose.These works retain the hand-moulded quality of Daumier's clay busts of legislators and the abstraction of Rodin's Balzac: indeed, the bronzes are some of Steinlen's most expressive works."

PHILLIP DENNIS CATE
© Oxford University Press 2006

References:
E. de Crauzat: L'Oeuvre grave et lithographie de Steinlen (Paris, 1913)
Dessins de Steinlen, 1859-1923 (exh. cat. by F. Viatte, Paris, Louvre, 1968)
M. Pianzola: Theophile-Alexandre Steinlen (Lausanne, 1971)
Theophile-Alexandre Steinlen,185

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"Mothu et Doria"
Steinlen, Théophile Alexandre
1893
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"Seated Abyssinian Cat"
Steinlen, Théophile Alexandre
circa 1900
5 1/4'' x 3'' x 2 3/8''
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"Small Seated Angora Cat"
Steinlen, Théophile Alexandre
circa 1910
2 3/4'' x 2 1/2''
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