Le Chat Noir is undoubtedly Paris’s most famous cat, or at least its most commercially reproduced cat. But it is only one of many cats who are part of the city’s story.
Countless millions have seen Le Chat Noir on posters, postcards, T-shirts, coffee mugs, coasters, napkins, and umbrella stands. Far fewer have seen the rare 1896 original lithograph by French artist Théophile Steinlen.
Born in Lausanne in 1859, Steinlen arrived in Paris in 1878 to work as a technical draftsman, moved to Montmartre in 1883, and two years later drew the first of several hundred lithographed advertising posters. Théophile loved cats and they became a common motif in his work. However, none are as famous as Le Chat Noir and for the origins of that image, we must turn to Rudolphe Salis—painter, poet, and son of a wealthy brewer.
In the 1880s Montmartre was a poor district more famous for prostitutes and pickpockets than artists. But artists were being priced out of the Left Bank and the Latin Quarter, and more and more came to take up residence on the Montmartre slopes. Rudolphe Salis was one of them.
Artists and writers like to hang out with others like them, to talk, drink, and solve the problems of the world. No one is quite sure how it happened—more chance than planning, it would seem—but by 1881 Rudolphe’s small apartment had become a regular meeting place. He had the family connections to provide a steady stream of drinks; thirsty artists temporarily short of currency gave him their pictures to put on the walls. After a while, he moved to larger quarters next door (84 boulevard Rochechouart, in the 18th arrondissement) and called it the Chat Noir.
What was the Chat Noir? Rudolphe Salis called it a cabaret, an antiquated word for a tavern or wine cellar (only later did cabaret carry the promise of public entertainment). The place attracted leading artists and musicians such as Claude Debussy, Guy de Maupassant, and Henri Rivière, as well as Erik Satie, who worked there for several months as pianist. The bourgeoisie—always on the lookout for new experiences and places—came to see the artists. In 1882, the regulars even started a magazine called Le Chat Noir. But nothing lasts forever, and in 1897 Le Chat Noir closed. (The current bistro of the same name on the Boulevard Clichy is a modern creation.)
Meanwhile, the Steinlen lithograph Le Chat Noir grew even more famous. At one level, it is the image of choice for many tourists. But its real importance is as an example of the how lithography changed printing, advertising, and tourism.
In the 1860s, most commercial posters were black-and-white, but by the 1880s they were colourful and more dynamic, often featuring well-endowed ladies, no matter what the product. The innovation was so popular that as early as 1891, the Parisian art dealer Edmond Sagot issued a 112-page catalogue of colour lithographic prints. He knew that what sells in galleries defines what is art. So he worked with printers to buy the overruns that ordinarily would have been thrown out. Later, posters were made and printed in quality purely for sale to art collectors, and Sagot became an art poster publisher as well as art gallery owner. It was a turning point in art.
Lithographic posters were art for the masses, just as railroad trains offered mass transportation and the international exhibitions (such as the one in 1889 for which the Eiffel Tower was built) spurred mass tourism. And Le Chat Noir? Along with the Eiffel Tower, it became one of the most famous representatives of the city.
Le Chat Noir is a much-beloved cat, but love and affection for cats can sometimes lead to jealousy and misadventures. Historian Robert Darnton, a Chevalier of the Legion d’Honneur (1999) reveals what must be one of the world’s most bizarre worker protests ever. Even the title of his book is unusual: The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History.
Historically, apprentice printers not had a happy life and have often been at the forefront of organized protests. In the 1730s, some apprentice printers on Rue Saint-Severin in Paris felt particularly hard done by. They lived and worked in squalid conditions and were fed mouldy food, while the neighbourhood cats their master’s wife doted on were offered much better fare. The apprentices longed to be treated as well as those cats.
To protest the maltreatment, one apprentice hit on a bizarre and ultimately cruel plan. He spent several nights imitating the howling of a cat. The sleep-deprived master printer and his wife were driven to despair. The printer ordered the apprentices to round up and dispose of the cats. The massacre was carried out. Did it improve the apprentices’ lives? That’s another story.
In today’s Paris, cats seem to have a rather happy lot. And in the opinion of Paris blogger Fred Moussaїan, perhaps none have a better life than those in “Les Villas de la Mouzaїa.”
In our travels in Paris we have seen a number of rather contented cats doing what cats seem to do best.
They sit in sunny spots, watching the world go by. They know there will be food and they will eat it when they feel like it. Sometimes a cat sitting in front of food reminds me of what my mother told me I would do as a little boy. As I sat at the table I would inform parents or visitors: “I wouldn’t be in the least offended if you fed me.”
Cats will let you intrude on their territory if you have some potential amusement value. This black one had been sitting looking into a little playground in a park. It paid attention when two shopping bags arrived along with their owner. Perhaps the latter would be kind and the bags be interesting.
There are also plenty of out-of-the-way spots where a cat can enjoy some peace and quiet. This one was enjoying the sunshine on the tracks of the old Petite Ceinture, sheltered from the hustle and bustle, with no fear of traffic or tiresome humans.
One of our favourite bookshops, Le Dilettante, uses an image of a cat snoozing peacefully on an open book as its logo. We’re not sure that it is the most commercial of images (it suggests that the books are not all that stimulating, and might be better used as cat beds), but the drawing is certainly endearing.
In our walks, we have also found evidence of cats needing special care or owners who are particularly tolerant of feline idiosyncrasies. As I wandered down a narrow street in the 14th, this door sign caught my attention.
Too many late nights, carousing with the artists, perhaps.
Text copyright Norman Ball; original photographs by Norman Ball & Philippa Campsie.