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Sunday, November 8, 2015

Theophile Alexandre Steinlen

GAUDEAMUS (listen), Theophile Steinlen
I can't say I'm a cat lover. I like cats, but then I like dogs too. With regard to the science of hemispheric dominance, theoret-ically, cat lovers tend to be right-brained while dog lovers are left-brained. I've always tested out as being whole-brained with a slight tendency toward the left, which, I suppose, would account for my enjoying both cats and dogs, not to mention a number of other animals, (though I wouldn't particularly want most of them for pets). I've written before on Feline Art, but I've never encountered an artist quite so infatuated with le chat (French for "the cat") as the late-19th-century French illustrator, Théophile Alexandre Steinlen.

As might be noted in Steinlen's GAUDEAMUS (right), this artist didn't just paint cats he exalted them. Actually, Steinlen was Swiss by birth (1859) but lived and worked most of his adult life in the Montmartre neighborhood situated on the right bank of the Seine in Paris. Of course, Steinlen didn't only paint cats. He was a poster designer and graphic artist at a time when printing techniques (principally color lithography) was beginning to catch up with the art of painting and drawing during the late 1800s. It was also a time when color was starting to make its way into popular magazines and advertising. Steinlen was a master at exploring and utilizing this rapid development of inexpensive, mass-produced public art in all its forms.

Although Steinlen sometimes did portrait
drawings, few of them were of himself.
Chat Noir, 1896,
Theophile Alexandre Steinlen

Steinlen studied at the University of Lausanne before taking a job as a designer trainee at a textile mill in Mulhouse, located in eastern France. While still in his early twenties and still developing his skills as a painter, he and his new wife were encouraged by an artist friend to move to the artistic community in the Montmartre sec-tion of Paris. There, Steinlen became acquainted with the painter, Adolphe Willette, who introduced him to the artistic crowd at a bistro called Le Chat Noir (The Black Cat, below), which led to commissions to do poster art (above, right) for the singer and cabaret owner, Aristide Bruant. He became what we term today a commercial artist or graphic designer.

A night at the Black Cat.

Steinlen's feline frustrated.
It's uncertain whether Steinlen devel-oped is feline infatuation as a result of his posters for this Paris nightspot or if his love of cats dated back to childhood (probably the latter). In any case, a great number of the cats Steinlen drew and painted were, in fact, black. Moreover, as cat artists go, he was quite good at it, from all indications, having spent a consid-erable amount of time drawing them from life. When I taught animal drawing in school, I had students bring in their pets. Cats were by far the easiest of all to draw due to their penchant for simply lying down and taking a "catnap" whenever they got bored, or were denied their freedom to roam around (we kept them on a very short leash). However, most of Steinlen's cats were not asleep as seen in his delightful action cartoon which he titled Le Chat Noir (right).

Steinlen sculpting
Le Chat Blanc
Clinique Cheron, 1905,
Theophile Steinlen
As I pointed out, Steinlen did not paint only cats, though from all indications whenever the opportunity presented itself, either in his advertising commissions or in the relatively few paintings he offered for sale, he seldom passed up the opportunity to employ them when he could. Though he was not much of a sculptor, his carved figure (above, left) indicates he was intimately familiar with the feline anatomy. Steinlen must have been delighted to receive the commission for Clinique Cheron (above, right) in the it allowed him a chance to depicts dogs too. At a time when pet portraits were not yet as popular as they are today, Steinlen was painting portrait quality images similar to the Recumbent Cat (below) from 1898. Whether it was, in fact, a portrait, or merely one of his own (he had many) is uncertain. However, it is certainly is one of his best.

Recumbent Cat, 1898, Theophile Alexandre Steinlen
Invitation to the Funeral of a
Boy's Life, 1891, Theophile Steinlen
Steinlen was an inveterate sketcher, and in fact, most of his drawing books are filled with images which are not of the feline affiliation. His touching Serbes (below) depicts peasant refugee children, hardly much better off than the Parisian stray cats he knew so well. Even more heartrending is the broadside invitation, apparently to the general public, to attend the Funeral of a Boy's Life (left) from 1891. The resolution is too poor to read the text (even with the help of a Google translator) but Steinlen's drawings stretching first horizontally, then diagonally down the page, speak louder than words. Notice the sad demeanor of what must be the boy's tiny dog at bottom left.

Serbes, Theophile Steinlen
Not all of Steinlen's work was so dismal. The man seems to have had a delightful sense of humor as seen in his Pierrot and Cat (below, left), from 1890. At the same time, he appears to have had an eye for the absurd as well, as indicated by his drawing, You Will Burn a Candle (below, right), from 1900. I have no idea what the title means.

Pierrot and Cat, 1890,
Theophile Steinlen
You Will Burn a Candle,
1900, Theophile Steinlen


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