Swiss-born French painter, Theophile Alexandre Steinlen, was one of the leaders in poster art that depicted Parisian life during the Belle Epoque. His great love for cats (regarded by many as the symbol of poetry) became a trademark associated with the repeated presence of cats in many of his posters.
Theophile Alexandre Steinlen was born in Lausanne, Switzerland, November 10th 1859. Encouraged to become a pastor, his parents enrolled him at the Académie de Lausanne where he studied literature and philosophy. In 1879, he dropped out of school and was hired as a designer at a textile mill in Mulhouse, Eastern France.
Francois-Louis David Bocion, his tutor at the university, knew of his drawing talent and encouraged him to move to the Montmartre district of Paris where he could devote his time to drawing professionally. In 1882, he moved to the centre of the art community where he continued to develop his skills as a painter. Steinlen began to hang out at the Chat Noir, a cabaret frequented by the avant-garde artists. Rodolphe Salis (owner of the Chat Noir) introduced him to local artists, poets and performers such as writer Emile Zola, Jean Richepin and Toulouse-Lautrec. He soon became the illustrator of the club’s satirical and humorous journal, Chat Noir.
His association with Adolphe Willette introduced him to potential patrons who were interested in poster art to promote their businesses. Between 1883 and 1920, he shuffled between commercial poster art and more serious contributions that gave a voice to social concerns by creating illustrations for publications such as: Mirliton, Assiette au Beurre and Gil Glas. Theophile Alexandre Steinlen often used pseudonyms, such as Treelan and Pierre, to avoid the criticism incited by his portrayal of the less glamorous part of Paris society and the underlying social realities of the day. ‘Le locataire’ (1913), an example of his controversial work, depicts the poverty and despair of the working classes in turn-of-the-century Paris.
Steinlen created theatrical and cabaret posters that featured local performers, including French singer Yvette Guilbert who preferred his portrayal to the version done by Toulouse-Lautrec. To add to his credit, the artist designed sheet music covers, as well as book illustrations including Guy de Maupassant’s ‘Le Vagabond’ and Anatole France’s ‘L’affaire Crainquebille’.
In the early 1890s, Steinlen’s works were exhibited amongst landscapes, nudes, portraits, and floral subjects at the Salon des Indépendants. In 1909, the Salon d’Automne featured his work in a separate room that was devoted solely to his accomplishments.
Theophile Alexandre Steinlen’s life-long fondness for felines incited popular paintings and sculptures such as ‘An angora in Bronze’ and ‘Tournée du Chat Noir’ (1896). He died December 13th 1923, and was buried in the Cimetière Saint-Vincent in Montmartre.