The Swiss diaspora: Steinlen in Montmartre

From Wikipedia:


(#1) Steinlen poster of 1896 advertising the Montmartre cabaret Le Chat Noir

Théophile Alexandre Steinlen (November 10, 1859 – December 13, 1923), was a Swiss-born French Art Nouveau painter and printmaker. Born in Lausanne [in Canton Vaud in Francophone Switzerland], Steinlen studied at the University of Lausanne before taking a job as a designer trainee at a textile mill in Mulhouse in eastern France.

He then found his spot, the place that suited him in life: the Montmartre district of Paris.

And became Swiss French (in the narrow sense): a French person who emigrated from Switzerland. Narrowly Swiss French, in the way that distinguished 19th-century scientist Louis Agassiz was narrowly Swiss American: from my 2/7/13 posting “Swiss American”:

Agassiz was Swiss American in the narrow sense; he emigrated from Neuchâtel (in Francophone Switzerland) to Boston and took American citizenship.

(I am Swiss American in the broad sense: an American of Swiss descent. There are a great many of us.)

More on Steinlen. Then on Le Chat Noir and cabarets. With some remarks on ethnonyms like Swiss American.

Steinlen. Continuing the Wikipedia article:

In his early twenties he was still developing his skills as a painter when he and his new wife were encouraged by the painter François Bocion to move to the artistic community in the Montmartre Quarter of Paris. Once there, Steinlen was befriended by the painter Adolphe Willette[,] who introduced him to the artistic crowd at Le Chat Noir [,which] led to his commissions to do poster art for the cabaret owner/entertainer, Aristide Bruant[,] and other commercial enterprises.

In the early 1890s, Steinlen’s paintings of rural landscapes, flowers, and nudes were being shown at the Salon des Indépendants. His 1895 lithograph titled Les Chanteurs des Rues was the frontispiece to a work entitled Chansons de Montmartre published by Éditions Flammarion with sixteen original lithographs that illustrated the Belle Époque songs of Paul Delmet.


(#2) Cover of the Delmet Chansons volume (1899)

His permanent home, Montmartre and its environs, was a favorite subject throughout Steinlen’s life and he often painted scenes of some of the harsher aspects of life in the area. In addition to paintings and drawings, he also did sculpture on a limited basis, most notably figures of cats that he had great affection for[,] as seen in many of his paintings.


(#3) Lait pur stérilisé de la Vingeanne (‘Pure Sterilized Milk from Vingeanne’), 1897 poster

From the Indianapolis Museum of Art site:

Sterilized, or pasteurized[,] milk was a new product in 1894, and it was shipped to Paris from the Quillot Brothers dairy in the Vingeanne district of east-central France[,] as Steinlen’s poster informs us.

Steinlen employed his favorite familiars — his young daughter Colette and his beloved cats — to convey the message of the healthfulness of pasteurized milk, inspiring the American poster designer, Louis Rhead [1857 – 1926], to write: “When I saw it in Paris last year, it seemed to me the best and brightest form of advertising that had yet appeared.”


(#4) Les Camarades (1915), a grim work of the Great War

Le Chat Noir and cabarets. From Wikipedia:

Le Chat Noir (“The Black Cat”) was a nineteenth-century entertainment establishment, in the bohemian Montmartre district of Paris. It opened on 18 November 1881 at 84 Boulevard de Rochechouart by the impresario Rodolphe Salis, and closed in 1897 not long after Salis’ death.

Le Chat Noir is thought to be the first modern cabaret: a nightclub where the patrons sat at tables and drank alcoholic beverages while being entertained by a variety show on stage.

From NOAD:

noun cabaret: [a: the currently most frequent sense] entertainment held in a nightclub or restaurant while the audience eats or drinks at tables: she was seen recently in cabaret | [as modifier]: a cabaret act. [b] a nightclub or restaurant where entertainment is performed. ORIGIN mid 17th century (denoting a French inn): from Old French, literally ‘wooden structure’, via Middle Dutch from Old Picard camberet ‘little room’. Current senses date from the early 20th century.

The cabaret as a cultural institution (along with the name, borrowed from French into other languages) spread rapidly around Europe and, indeed, the world. By 1939 it was a central feature of a Christopher Isherwood novel:

Goodbye to Berlin is a 1939 novel by Christopher Isherwood set in Weimar Germany. It is often published together with Mr Norris Changes Trains in a collection called The Berlin Stories.

… [in the book:] Moving to Germany to work on his novel, Isherwood soon becomes involved with a diverse array of German citizens: the caring landlady, Frl. Schroeder; the “divinely decadent” Sally Bowles, a young Englishwoman who sings in the local cabaret [the Kit Kat Club] and her coterie of admirers … (Wikipedia link)

Now the world’s most famous cabaret, thanks to this book and the adaptations of it for the stage and movies.

Ethnonyms and language varieties. Steinlen was Swiss French in the narrow sense, a French person originally from Switzerland; so was the architect Le Corbusier. In the broad sense — a French person of Swiss descent — the film director Jean Luc Godard, both of whose parents came from Swiss families, is Swiss French (but has never been Swiss).

Swiss French here is parallel to Irish American, African American, Armenian Canadian, etc. Somewhat confusingly, French Swiss is often used, not for a Swiss person of French birth or descent, but for a Francophone, French-speaking, Swiss person; my father’s parents were German Swiss in this sense, German-speaking Swiss people (if my grandfather had German ancestors, they were hundreds of years back in the family tree, so he wasn’t ethnically German Swiss). In a further twist, varieties of the German language spoken in Switzerland — both standard varieties in the country and characteristically local varieties not mutually intelligible with the standard — are referred to as Swiss German. (And Swiss French refers to the standard variety of French in Switzerland.)

(And all of this is oversimplified.)

2 Responses to “The Swiss diaspora: Steinlen in Montmartre”

  1. Robert Coren Says:

    if my grandfather had German ancestors, they were hundreds of years back in the family tree, so he wasn’t ethnically German Swiss

    Which raises the question of what it would have meant to be “German” rather than “Swiss” at a time when there was no well-defined country of “Germany”.

  2. [BLOG] Some Wednesday links | A Bit More Detail Says:

    […] Zwicky takes a look at the lives of two notable members of the Swiss diaspora in Paris’ […]

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