Thèophile-Alexandre Steinlen (1859-1923) Art Nouveau with a Social Realism Touch

It was  hard to choose a topic for this week entry!   Art Nouveau and the  first years of the twentieth century were the “quick off” of so many creative waves impacting Graphic Design until our days.

Megg’s History of Graphic Design (6)  briefly mentions Thèophile-Alexandre Steinlen as a one of the artist who took upon social realism on his art. Steinlen was a prolific illustrator, mostly known by his “cat’s posters and other commercial work for cabarets, food industry, music sheets and book covers. Steinlen created a total of 382 lithographs and 115 etchings. (7)  Steinlen was  friend and  rival on commissions of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and it is not clear “who  influenced  who”  in their work since they had very similar subject matters for topics.

Our text book describes Steinlen as someone whose “radical political views, socialist affiliations and anticlerical stance led him toward social realism, depicting poverty, exploitation and the working class.” (6)    This paragraph resonated much in my brain and my rebel side won, opting to focus my  attention on the political work of Steinlen rather than his commercial work.  Steinlen strongest social content pieces appeared in radical publications like Pere Peinard, Les Temps Nouveaux and Le Chambard. He often employed the pseudonyms of Treelan and Pierre to avoid political repercussions. Some of his latest work was the more satirical and critical of society.

The blog Adventures in the Print Trade presents an interesting collection of lithographs Steinlen created to illustrate the novel Les Gueules (The Miners, literally translates to “The Black Faces”) by Emile More in 1907. These prints recollect the horrors of the 1848 war and the hardships  poor people lived in France at the moment.
The etching displayed above is the last image Steinlen, created before dying at age 64.  Titled  Le Vagabond, it was published posthumously in 1924.

I found very disappointing from  the authors of Megg’s History of Graphic Design, to have a strong emphasis on the commercial side of the Art Nouveau Period, leaving all the political work  to  microscopic amounts of information and images.  Both  sides of  are very important and artists like Lautrec and Steinlen, inspired many other artists around the world to take upon social causes with  their art.  As an example, they inspired  the Mexican artists Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros and many other Latin American artists who use posters (afiches) as their weapons against injustice.  Anyway, with open mind, let’s see what the authors’ perspectives will bring us the following chapters.   These images of Stainlen led me to think on the work of  three contemporary printmakers, all  living in California whose social justice and political points of views will be a legacy of our generation, like Steinlen is for the Art Nouveau period.  These are Art Hazelwood, Juan Fuentes and Favianna Rodríguez.

About the 1848 Revolution.

Socialism originated with the French Revolution (1789), followed later with Marks and Engels Communist Manifesto  in 1848.  The Manifesto generated what is known as the European Revolution (or Springtime of the People) of 1848 , starting in France and spreading to most of Europe and Latin America. Although the revolution did not last long, the most significant reforms were the complete end of monarchy in France, the abolition of Serfdom in Austria (status of bondage for peasants under feudal times) and the end of absolute monarchy in Denmark. Thus, the seed of social conscience spread among middle and bourgeoisie classes in Europe. On previous chapters, we read  about  how these philosophies and war inspired the Arts and Crafts movement as well at the continuation of future movements, all of them right before World War I.

Alejandra Chaverri

October 27, 2012


  1. Aaron Prints
  2. Adventures in the Print Trade, blog
  3. All
  4. Fuentes, Juan
  5. Hazelwood, Art
  6. Meggs, P.B., Purvis, A.W. Megg’s History of Graphic Design,Wiley& Sons,  fifth ed., 2012
  7. Novin, Guiti, blog
  8. Rodriguez,  Favianna
  9. Social Realism
  10. The European Revolution, Age of the Sage web site
  11. Van Gogh Gallery

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