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La Mère Chatte. Black chalk and white heightening on laid paper. 48 x 62.5 cm. Signed: Steinlen, inscribed in pencil bottom left: La mère chatte. Before 1913.
As a chronicler of Montmartre during the Belle Epoque, Steinlen swiftly rose to fame in his chosen home, Paris. The Swiss-born painter, draughtsman and printmaker, who became a French citizen in 1901, first arrived in Paris in 1878. Here he frequented the circle around Frédéric Willette, was a regular visitor to the Chat Noir cabaret opened by Rodolphe Salis at the foot of the Butte Montmartre and was on friendly terms with Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Steinlen was a talented poster artist and also a mordant social critic who exposed social abuses and the double standards of the bourgeoisie in his illustrations for such satirical periodicals as Gil Blas Illustré, Assiette au Beurre and Le Rire. His portrayals of the working-class milieu and the Parisian demi monde are populated by proletarians, vagabonds, petty criminals and harlots, who are bowed down under the burden of their hopeless existence.
This element of social criticism, however significant for his œuvre as a whole, is but one aspect of Steinlen’s graphic art. Perhaps by way of compensation he took to painting and drawing cats, and few artists have captured the essential nature and marvellously self-willed character of these animals with as much verve as he did. One need only think of the rightly famed poster Lait de la Vingeanne (1894, fig. 1) or the legendary advertisement for Rudolphe Salis’ Chat Noir (1896). Steinlen endows these creatures with an imposing presence and positively human characteristics without depriving them of any of their animal nature. Some are depicted as inimitably elegant and feminine, like the grand ladies of the Belle Epoque, while others are as scruffy and emaciated as alley cats. The cat fancier Steinlen depicts them as playful, lazy, affectionate or dangerously suspicious.
Our drawing is an impressive testimonial to his talent. The work dates to before 1913, since E. de Crauzat’s catalogue raisonné of the artist’s prints features a compositionally closely related lithograph (see L’Œuvre Gravé et Lithographié, Paris 1913, p. 211). Rendered with broad, accurate lines, the body of the mother cat is shown lying on a large, soft cushion. She has closed her eyes to slits and is dozing quietly without, however, relaxing her vigilance for a moment. Next to her bony hip we discern the head of a kitten with cocked ears and bright eyes, gazing curiously out at the world. It is not an extremely handsome Mère chatte that Steinlen shows us, but she reposes with the grace of an Odalisque.