Born in Lausanne, Switzerland, Steinlen made his way to Paris where a fellow artist encouraged him and his wife to move up among the artistic denizens of Montmartre. He found himself among the patrons and performers of Le Chat Noir and the rest, as they say, is history.
One of the world’s most famous posters, and an icon of Art Nouveau, Steinlen’s “Chat Noir” plays on some of Mucha’s signature flairs – the cat’s halo, the curve of the tail redolent of Mucha-maidens’ tousled hair – to create an indelible symbol at once wicked, subversive, seductive, and silly. The text here promotes the opening tour of the Chat Noir’s resident performers, boasting a “highly illustrious troupe” presenting shadow plays, poetry readings, and songs. Incredibly popular when first unveiled to the public, the basic image was worked into a number of different formats and text arrangements. This represents the initial printing of the “Prochainement” poster; later, after Rodolphe Salis fell ill and was unable to perform with the company, the “avec” preceding his name was replaced with “de,” both as a tip-on and in a new edition of the poster. This is the smaller format.
Based off of models by Dion-Bouton, Comiot Cycles was a short-lived brand produced around the turn-of-the-century. Here, the product could not be more charmingly portrayed, a pensive young rider flying through a swarm of geese as she breezes through the countryside. This is the larger, 2-sheet version.
All the warmth, humanity, and affection for which Steinlen is so loved comes through gloriously in this poster for the newly-marketed “lait stérilisé” that was touted over the “lait ordinaire” at that time. Charles Knowles Bolton, writing a year after its publication, proclaimed that this “is perhaps, the most attractive poster ever made. No man with half a heart could fail to fall in love with the child.” Louis Rhead himself commented: “When I saw it in Paris last year . . . it seemed to me the best and brightest form of advertising that had appeared.” This is the medium format version.
There is no consensus as to what Steinlen’s highly-regarded “Mothu et Doria” is actually trying to portray. A singing duo in Aristide Bruant’s social-realist mode? A stage drama? Is it a moment of socioeconomic conflict or comity? All we really know is this: a gentleman, likely returning from the Opera, proffers a cigar so that a raffish gentleman with sunken cheeks can light his own cigarette, in the foggy gaslight of a Parisian night. Its ambiguity alone defines it as a superb work of art.
The word “Cocorico” is the French equivalent to cock-a-doodle-do, making it rather unnecessary to show the entire word as the rooster says enough. The publication did much to encourage fine poster design by reproducing posters, selling them in its pages, and illustrating the works of major poste artists. This is Steinlen’s most forceful poster.
Steinlen had a thing for cats. Far beyond the success of his Chat Noir poster, he gave over many hours to illustrating them in all manner of characteristic poses. These two cats were featured in the poster for his exhibition at Bodinière Gallery (see Crauzat, 492; PAI-LXV, 487).
In-gallery viewing October 12 to 27 (daily 11am-6pm)