Le Chat Noir Cabaret

Ah, this one takes me back. My favourite professor got in touch with me recently and inspired me to revisit this subject. Also, I’m going to see Theophile Steinlen’s cats in Richmond soon. You know the sign by Steinlein. But do you know it’s history? It’s vast, it’s strange, and it’s often overlooked.

The artistic cabaret, Le Chat Noir, opened in Montmartre in 1881 to great Parisian acclaim. I give a huge amount of credit to Rodolphe Salis, the owner.

He helped shape this cafe into the first modern cabaret. He was an extravagant host that embodied the playful and rowdy nature of Le Chat Noir. Look at him.

Rodolphe Salis
Rodolphe Salis – one suave motha

His mischevious eyes glitter. A trickster at heart, he turned his client’s expectations on their head. If you walked into Le Chat Noir in its heyday you would’ve expected a raunchy mix of decadent art, seedy entertainment, and avant-garde patrons. Salis himself might greet a beggar like a king then heckle the bourgeoisie. (Though he called himself the “King of Montmartre”.)

Le_Chat_noir_cabaret_Paris_2_postcardWhen he started Le Chat Noir, Salis only had in mind a drinking establishment catering to artists. But Le Chat Noir became a spectacle in its own right. (Much like its owner.) And a cult of well-known artists, musicians, and other entertainers followed.

Art movements were born here. This small space played host to the masterful Shadow Theater. It inspired Le Chat Noir Journal. Notable patrons included Aristide Bruant, Toulouse-Lautrec, Paul Signac, The Prince of Wales, and Henri Rivèrie. Among countless others.


And yet, this poster is the most lasting piece of this rich history. Often it’s found in the living rooms of the same people Salis mocked. (I include myself in this by the way. He’d wreck me.)

There’s a lot to cover, so I’ll start a mini-series on Le Chat Noir. In the following weeks, I’ll cover –

  1. Montmartre and Café-concerts. How did Montmartre influenced and inspire Rodolphe Salis? Why did the cabaret come to be lauded as the first?
  2. Experiments, Spectacles, and Parody at Le Chat Noir. I’ll go into some of the rowdy experiments (like early performance art), garish decor, and how Le Chat Noir spoofed institutions like the Academy.
  3. Toulouse-Lautrec and Montmartre’s Mass Appeal. How did the venue affect one of the most famous patrons of Le Chat Noir? And how did Cabarets help blur class lines?
  4. Wicked Humour: The Hydropathes and Incohérents. Two forgotten art movements that inspired the likes of the Dadaists.
  5. Inventive to the End: Le Chat Noir’s Shadow Theatre. I’ll look into one of the finest and enduring spectacles at Le Chat Noir. (And where can you see similar productions today.)

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