Of Cats and Cafés
October 29, 2015
One of the most famous cats in popular visual culture is the sinuous yet fierce feline from Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen’s 1896 poster advertising a tour of cabaret entertainers from the Chat Noir in Paris. Easily available today on posters, magnets, and t-shirts, Steinlen’s cat has a colorful history and legacy. The Chat Noir was a café in Montmartre, founded in 1881 by Rodolphe Salis and closed in 1897 when the proprietor died. It was the hangout of radical modern artists and writers, including Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Adolphe Willette, Caran d’Ache, André Gill, Paul Verlaine, and Aristide Bruant. Many of the most significant graphic artists of the late 19th century were regulars, and, like Steinlen, they put their talents to work promoting and decorating their favorite haunt. The group that gathered there even named one of their journals Le Chat Noir, and Steinlen was publishing clever, wordless cat cartoons in the magazine by the 1880s.
As these artists became internationally famous, so did the café, which was described in Harper’s Monthly in 1889 as “the most famous and curious café of Montmartre.” (The Chat Noir was so celebrated that there were discussions about recreating the café, in its entirety, at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago!) Like many visiting artists, the American painter Robert Henri made a pilgrimage to the Chat Noir when he was studying in Paris in 1891, describing it in his diary as “artistic, extremely so.” In 1898 Steinlen published a book of his cat cartoons called Des Chats: Images sans Paroles, which features page after page of his signature cat cartoons.
The Delaware Art Museum has a copy of the original edition in our library, and the MFA Boston has scanned theirs and put it online so you can flip through and enjoy cats being harassed by children, getting tangled in yarn, and falling into fish bowls. It isn’t YouTube, but it was a significant step toward cartoon animation in the late 19th century. By this point in the 1890s, Steinlen, Toulouse-Lautrec, and other French illustrators were having a huge impact on graphic art in the United States. Artists produced posters, advertisements, book covers, and illustrations with broad areas of flat color and surface pattern. These “poster-style” illustrations drew inspiration from Japanese woodblock prints and the graphic artists of Paris.
Certainly John Sloan and Edward Penfield, early adopters of the poster style in America, were looking at French illustration. Elegant cats occupy several illustrations by Penfield in the Museum’s collection. A particular calico appears so often that he or she must have been a pet. In his advertising poster for an 1897 calendar of posters—yes, the “poster craze” really was a thing—this charming kitty watches a beret-clad artist get to work on what will presumably become yet another artistic poster.
In Sloan’s work, cats are more likely to appear in drawings and paintings. He immortalized the cats at his favorite Philadelphia hangout, Green’s Hotel at 8th and Chestnut Streets, in his 1900 painting Green’s Cats. The black cat creates an elegant, Art Nouveau S-curve against the rectilinear tiles. With its play of line and pattern and monochrome palette, the painting is unusually decorative and resembles the artist’s graphic work of the 1890s more than his later city paintings. Sloan deeply admired Steinlen, so the French illustrator’s work may have provided direct inspiration for this subject.
Heather Campbell Coyle
Curator of American Art