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Théophile Alexandre Steinlen

(1859 Lausanne – 1923 Paris)

Profile of a Man Sitting with a Small Child on his Lap. Charcoal drawing. 61 x 44 cm. Signed: “Steinlen”.

As a chronologist of Montmartre during the Belle Époque, Steinlen quickly rose to fame in his adopted city of Paris. The Swiss-born painter, draughtsman and printmaker arrived in the city in 1878 and became a naturalised Frenchman in 1901. He moved in the circle around Frédéric Willette, was a regular visitor to the cabaret Le Chat noir run 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 a caustic social critic who pilloried social evils and the double moral standards of the bourgeoisie in his illustrations for satirical magazines such as Gil Blas Illustré, Assiette au Beurre and Rire. His scenes from the working class milieu and the demi-monde in Paris show proletarians, vagrants, petty criminals and prostitutes bent by the burden of their hopeless existence.

This large-scale drawing is a vivid illustration of Steinlen’s skill as a draughtsman. He has portrayed a simple man of the people in a brisk, broad, consummate drawing style. The man is shown sat in profile wearing a long, somewhat scruffy coat which hangs down to the ground; his stubbly beard and sailor’s cap clearly mark him out as a member of the working class. In a gesture of solicitous protection he holds on his lap a small child snuggled up closely to him who looks at the viewer in a shy, almost sullen manner. Both of them have a poor and troubled existence ahead. While a socially critical note is not readily apparent at first glance, there can be no overlooking its subliminal presence. Despite his poor clothing, the man radiates noble-mindedness, his paternal solicitude revealing a proud self-confidence and firmness of character. Steinlen shows the dignity of simple working people in a visually intensive manner. It is thus no accident that this imposing drawing is highly reminiscent of the contemporary works of Käthe Kollwitz. She and like-minded artists of her time were familiar with socially critical French artists such as Steinlen and Forain and were greatly influenced by their works.

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