Le Chat Noir or The Black Cat Cabaret of Victorian Times

Le Chat Noir or The Black Cat was the first cabaret in the modern sense and was established by an unsuccessful painter named Louis Rodolphe Salis, born in 1851, a year after the death of the famous wax sculptor, Madame Tussaud. His father was a wine merchant in Chatellerault and he wanted his son to be a tradesman, but Salis wanted to be a painter. After he found himself unsuccessful in his chosen career, he began thinking about the maxims of his father and decided he needed to combine art and alcoholic beverages creating the idea of the modern cabaret.

Louis Rodolphe Salis. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Salis’s idea was for patrons to sit at tables amid clouds of tobacco smoke and drink mugs of Bavarian beer. At the same time patrons would enjoy a variety of stage acts that would be introduced by a master of ceremonies, who would also interact with the audience. Thus, Salis opened Le Chat Noir in the 1881.

The cabaret supposedly acquired the name of Le Chat Noir in one of two ways. One claim was that its name came from the discovery of a dead rat under a divan. The second claim is that it was named after a picture which appeared in one of the exhibitions in Paris ad was bought or presented to the inn by the artist. The painting was described in the following way:

“A black cat is represented standing on the shoulder of a woman, whose white skin and corsage are liberally displayed.”[1]

Either way Le Chat Noir opened in November 1881 in a two-room building located at 84 Boulevard Rochechouart. The first room was larger than the second, and this was the room where the general public was admitted. The second room was called the “L’Institut” and reserved for artists to meet before performing or reciting their works.

Le Chat Noir Facade. Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

The interior of Le Chat Noir was as inferior as the wine that was served. The style was described as a blend of rococo and the commonplace. Inside it had the appearance of an old curiosity shop and Salis’s friends soon covered its walls with some of their best artworks. It also had recessed lighting that was filtered through stained glass, and Salis decorated it in the Louis XVIII style, as described:

“Tapestries, panels, tables, chairs, settles, and a gigantic fire-placed decorated all around with cats in ceramic. As for the cats, they were to be found everywhere, living and painted. On the sign-post a cat greeted you at the entrance. On winding your way among the tables you stumbled over cats, while the great Chat Noir herself stood by the fire-pace, mysterious and serene like the goddess Sokhit of Egypt.”[2]

Another description of Le Chat Noir stated:

“[It was] fitted up with real old wood-work, old tapestry, old faience, and old arms; the fireplace was a vast open chimney, with the traditional chain and pot suspended therein; on the ceiling was fixed an immense ‘glory,’ bought at the Hôtel Drouot at a sale of old ecclesiastical accessories, and in the middle of the glory was placed a black cat’s head; the windows were stained glass and adorned with the emblematic cat; and the swinging zinc sign outside the door represented a black cat standing with mountainous back and tortuous tail on that astronomical abstraction, the crescent moon.”[3]

Salis’s idea was to cater to painters and poets. So, from the start, there was a Swiss guard decked out in gold from head to toe to greet desired guests and deter unwanted ones. Waiters were also conspicuously dressed like regular Academicians. In addition, Salis added to the establishment’s atmosphere. He was described as tall, with short reddish hair, and a pointed red beard. He had cold grey-blue eyes and talked freely, constantly, and loudly. He also mingled with his patrons and always had something to say, “returning the politeness in compliments and shaking hands on parting with everybody.”[4]

Part of Le Chat Noir’s success could be attributed to a journal bearing its same name. It was a comic illustration sheet that included the work of Le Chat Noir’s customers, such as Willette, Caran D’Ache, Steinlen, Uzès, Henri Somm, and so forth. It was supposedly put together around the breakfast table, and on editorial day, it was reported that junior members of the daily press dropped in for a visit. Further, the claim was that the most serious person who attended the meeting was a dog. 

Le Chat Noir journal

Le Chat Noir Journal From 19 May 1883. Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Le Chat Noir soon outgrew the 84 Boulevard Rochechouart site. On 10 June 1885, Salis moved his Le Chat Noir to new premises located 12 Rue Victor-Masse, previously called Rue de Laval. At the second location, the entrance was showily decorated with “Houdon’s statue of Venus, shining under the electric light amidst palm trees.”[5] The ground floor hall was styled “Le Salle des Gardes” while the second room called “L’Institut” as before. One change was that the waiters were no longer dressed as Academicians. However, as before, the interior walls were painted by a variety of artists:

“Steinlen, with a mob of cats surging under the moon; Degas, with his impression of ballet dancers twirling in a glare of gas, and Marcellin Desboutin, whose superb “homme au Sabre’ was not long ago exhibited.'”[6]

In the second location, the stage helped to create the cabaret’s success. Plays were performed, and between them, songs were sung. One person noted that the atmosphere was “peculiar,” but he also wrote that it was “so alluringly mingled of fancy and art, [it exercises] a special charm.”[7] Moreover, for many of those who assisted Salis in helping to popularize Le Chat Noir, they found that they acquired good reputations for painting, poetry, or singing. Patrons included such people as Alphonse Daudet (novelist), Jean-Paul Laurens (painter and sculpture), Jean-Jacques Henner (painter), Jules Lemaître (critic and dramatist), Georges Clairin (painter and illustrator), and Emile Zola (novelist and playwright).

 

le chat noir

Iconic poster by Theophile-Alexandre Steinlen advertising the approaching tour of The Black Cat show, 1896. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Despite Le Chat Noir’s success and despite the reputations it bestowed upon some of its patrons, Salis supposedly remained the same man.

“The unwearied and successful follower of a maxim in which he has made his own, namely, that the only way for artists to make money is to treat art as a trade like other trades. It is in this way that you may, up to now, at the closing of every performance, see … [Salis], with that grand and elaborate manner which suits him so well, rounding off one of his eccentric speeches on Montmarte, capital of Paris, or on l’art chat noiresque, with the unfailing sentence: ‘My lords, the time has come for self-respecting gentlemen to ask for a fresh supply of beer.'”[8]

References:

  • [1] “Metropolitan Notes,” in Nottingham Evening Post, 16 November 1887, p. 4.
  • [2] The English Illustrated Magazine, Volume 11, 1894, p. 186. 
  • [3] Public Opinion, Volume 55, 1889, p. 426.
  • [4] The English Illustrated Magazine, p. 186.
  • [5] Ibid., p. 189.
  • [6] The Curio, 1888, p. 175.
  • [7] The English Illustrated Magazine, p. 190. 
  • [8] Ibid.

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