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: Two Drawings by Steinlen


Joseph Breck



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
One hears occasionally the criticism that illustrators do not illustrate. For example, they grab the hero in knickerbockers, whereas the author explicitly states he wore a morning coat and striped trousers. In such a case undoubtedly there is cause for criticism, but, on the other hand, the artist who concerns himself with no more than the mere superficialities of his subject—whether he follows the text accurately or not—is an exceedingly poor illustrator. Like any other inefficient artist who has nothing to say, the poor illustrator, however much he may dot his i’s and cross his t’s, is a failure in the first essential of good art, that it should represent the facts of life seen through the lens of personality. The poor illustrator, floating bladder-like on the surface of things, never diving adventurously into the mysterious depths of human existence, is doubly a failure. First as an artist; second, as a particular kind of artist—as an illustrator whose work is created to serve a definite need.Publishers do not buy illustrations with any philanthropic idea of encouraging art. They use illustrations because good illustrations enable readers of sluggish imagination to visualize more easily the characters and incidents of a story, thus increasing the reader’s pleasurable interest—and the publisher’s sales. Of course there are other reasons; for one, to decorate the page, to catch and please the eye. But red ink and display type would do as much. The illustration exists because it serves another purpose. And if the illustrator, or any artist, as for that, would stimulate the imagination, he must give us more than costumes, scenery, and photographs of the actors; he must make us feel the play itself, the emotions or ideas which underlie the outward facts. The ideal illustrator, then, follows copy, strives to make his work as beautiful as possible; but above all, endeavors to express the true significance of his subject, the qualities of feeling which are eternally comprehensible, when the non-intrinsic elements of representation, the costumes, the bric-a-brac, the poses, have passed into the limbo of outlandish, forgotten fashion.The great illustrators are few in number, but no one questions the right of Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen to be included in their number. This celebrated artist was born in 1859 at Lauzanne, in Switzerland. At an early age he left home, inspired, it is said, by the reading of Zola’s L’Assommoir, to find his way eventually to Paris, where he has since lived. Zola’s novel may well have aroused in the young Steinlen that quality of human sympathy which has always been conspicuous in his work. Certainly there is revealed in this realistic novel those aspects of life in a great city which have appealed so peculiarly to Steinlen as the illustrator of the crowded street life of Paris.The following paragraph is translated from an appreciation of Steinlen, written by Anatole France for the catalogue of a recent exhibition of the artist’s work.“Formerly Watteau assembled in the delicate, gilded shadow of a park companies who spoke of love amid the rustle of satin. Today the trees are cut down in the park and all that is left for the eager artist, subtle, impatient to express the life and dreams of his time, is the life of the populous streets. His sensibility, acute, fervent, attentive; his infallible visual memory; his power of rapid expression destined Steinlen to become the illustrator and painter of passing life, the master of the street. The bright morning tide and the sombre nocturnal tide of laborers, men and women; the groups at table upon the sidewalks; the prowlers of the dark boulevards; the street itself; the public square; the distant suburbs, with their meager trees and vacant lots—all this he has made his own. He knows all these. Their life is his life, their joy is his joy, their sorrow, his sorrow. He has suffered, he has laughed with these passersby. The spirit of crowds, maddened or joyous, has entered into his being. He has felt the terrible simplicity and the grandeur of the soul of the people. And this is why Steinlen’s work is epic.”The Institute has recently acquired two characteristic drawings by Steinlen. They are studies in lithographic crayon for illustrations which appeared in La Chanson des Gueux by Jean Richepin, published by Edouard Pelletan, Paris, 1910,with two hundred and fifty-two compositions by Steinlen. These preparatory studies are naturally somewhat different from the final versions but differ rather in details than in general composition. It is Steinlen’s method of work to make numerous studies for his illustrations, experimenting and synthesizing until in his final drawing he is able to create his desired effects with that economy of means which is the secret of the astounding technical assurance of his work.The drawing reproduced in page 97 is a study for the illustration to the poem Epitaphe pour n’importe qui. A squalling human mite, wrapped in swaddling clothes, lies neglected in the dirty corner of a street. There is represented here, with that mastery of characterization which gives value to Steinlen’s slightest sketches, the helplessness of infancy and the pathos of unwelcomed life. The second drawing, reproduced on page 99, is a study for the illustration to the poem entitled Cimitiere intime. This figure of a young man who has thrown himself down upon his narrow bed to weep out his sorrow, not only illustrates the text of the poem; it would interest us were every line of the poem lost. Its appeal is universal, for who of us has not suffered grief? And it is grief Steinlen has pictures; not the noisy petulance of the child, not the dry, feeble sorrow of old age, but youth’s passionate abandonment to emotion. When grief is all the more intense because contrasted with the exuberance of youth’s joy.
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Source: Joseph Breck, "Two Drawings by Steinlen," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 3, no. 8 (August, 1914): 95-97.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009