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Le Chat Noir

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This beautiful image was originally created by Theophile Alexandre Steinlen, a Swiss artist, in 1886.

Posters, postcards, fridge magnets, key rings; people are drawn to this image and the history it holds and represents.  

The original painting resides in the Art museum of the Rutgers University, New Jersey.

But what is the real story behind that majestic black cat? 

One man's big dream

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Rodolphe Salis arrived in Paris in 1872 and worked as an artisan fabricating mediocre religious objects which were sold on the streets. Salis wanted more from life and it was during that time of craftsmanship that he conceived the idea of opening a bar- one where people could come and mix art and drinks. A cabaret bar.

He dreamed big at first and imagined a beautiful, large cafe in the style of Louis XIII, with Byzantine wrought iron chandeliers where the upper class, bourgeois Parisians, along with the artists and entertainers, would come and drink absinthe and hypocras ( a medieval form of mulled wine) in gold cups. 

The Reality

Le Chat Noir did open, in 1881, but was not as glamorous as Salis had dreamed at first. Bad wine served in a somber setting with old furniture was more the reality but, however, at this early stage the customers were already being met and greeted at the door by a Swiss man splendidly bedecked from head to toe in gold, whose role was to let the artists, poets and writers in while filtering out the drunks, homeless and criminals as well as the infamous priests and the military. 

At this time, Le Chat Noir was only two small rooms on Boulevard de Rochechouart. 

As time went on the bar began to do well and the decor was upgraded to an evocative pseudo-historical aspect of the time of Rabelais- a catholic priest, humanitarian writer and doctor whose art was satirical, philosophical and realistic. His work is accredited to be one of the first of the modern roman movement .

so, why is it called "LE CHAT NOIR"?

Now for the big revelation! Most people wonder why the big black cat on the posters? Was it a aristocratic cat? did it belong to one of the rich patrons? well, NO.

Very,very simply, Rodolphe Salis found a lost black chat on the sidewalk during the construction of the bar and that my friends is all there is to it!

Little did he know back then that this cat would probably be the most famous cat in history!

The Rise of Le Chat Noir

Salis met a man named Emile Goudeau, a journalist and poet. Goudeau was the founder of a group called the Hydropathes ( those afraid of water!) which were a literary group. Salis managed to convince him to hold his meetings at Le Chat Noir instead of the usual spot on the Rive Gauche (the left bank).

This was a turning point for Le Chat Noir- very quickly this group attracted the best clientele of Paris. Soon after, famous painters, singers and artists were to be found here. Salis bought a large piano and so the cabaret era began. 

With this success Salis was able to move the premises to a three story building on Rue Victor Masse. He now had the freedom to realize some of his dream.

He decorated some rooms in a pseudo-historical style with the guidance of his very famous artist friends as well as creating a shadow play theater which was a huge success.The music was composed by some of the patrons and some real masterpieces were first brought to life there. He also opened La Salle des Arts Incoherents ( Salon of incoherent arts) as well as the comic monologues.

According to Salis himself:  "The Chat Noir is the most extraordinary cabaret in the world. You rub shoulders with the most famous men of Paris, meeting there with foreigners from every corner of the world."


As the riches grew, Salis was able to move to one final location, Boulevard de Clichy. 

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The new establishment was soon filled with all the artists and musicians of the city and more.

Salis also turned part of the building into a sumptuous Inn.

According to Jean Lorain, a french writer, "Le Chat Noir was a melting pot of all styles and all extravagances, a whole district of daubers and poets, a picaresque and baroque museum of all the bohemian rantings come together for over twenty years. The worst of bad taste side by side with the most exquisite findings; polychrome statues and Willette frescoes , graceful and perverse flights of nudity, pink and gold shrouds and stuffed owls, wrought iron and ceramic cats, stained glass floats, stunning color and cruel modernity, and illuminated floors."

" Le Chat Noir, the artistic and commercial hostelry of gentleman Salis , Lord of Chatnoirville-en-Vexin, who with the one hand would be blessing a clever companion named whiskers trooper all the while passing songs, sonnets, sketches, boiled eggs seasoned with glory in the  most miraculously rigged setting.

 And so it was it was until Salis's death in 1897.

Today, the establishment is a modern boutique hotel still on the Boulevard de Clichy.

Its raucous past now a long faded memory.

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My favorite illustration by Albert Robida- le chat noir in its first stage with the begolden Swiss man and its crazy decor

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