Swiss born, but very much identified with the Parisian ‘Belle Epoque’ in which he flourished artistically, Steinlen was in-fact naturalised French in 1901. Steinlen was one of the most important of this group of illustrators, social commentators, and poster artists of the decades around the turn of the twentieth century. His achievements in harnessing the new techniques of reproduction to his artistic vision are to be placed alongside those of Toulouse-Lautrec, Jules Cheret and Alphonse Mucha.
Steinlen came from a family rich in professional draughtsmen, and in 1877 he was granted an apprenticeship at one of his uncles’ textiles factory, at Mulhouse in Alsace-Lorraine. Hearing Zola’s lecture ‘The Trap’ (L’Assommoir) in 1877 however provided the final impulse for Steinlen to pursue his artistic career in Paris, settling with his new wife in the fervent, anti-establishment bohemian quarter of Montmartre. Steinlen immediately became immersed in the socially distinctive milieu of cabarets, brasseries and dance halls; their cluster of travelling artists, minstrels and comedians; and amongst the writers and illustrators for the affiliated revues of these diverse clubs and circles. Steinlen gained regular employment for the 'Chat Noir' and 'Le Mirliton' during the 1880s, and particularly for 'Gil Blas' in the 1890s, for example.
This pastel may be dated to Steinlen’s first years in Paris where he made his name as a chronicler of popular Parisian life. His eye may be gently satirical, yet is overwhelmingly tender and forgiving of these young starry-eyed seamstresses or laundry girls enjoying themselves on a night out after work. However, his eye could be un-forgivingly acerbic upon those who earned his moral disapprobation and Steinlen’s work became increasingly politically committed as he engaged with social inequalities, industrialisation and later, with the atrocities of WW1.
Steinlen earned widespread respect throughout Paris. Rejecting official channels of the art world, he nevertheless exhibited regularly at the Salon des Independents from 1893 and in 1909 the Salon d’Automne devoted a room to him. A year after his death in 1923, his long-time colleague Adolphe Willette set up the Societe des Amis de Steinlen in his honour.