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The Black Cat of Catus

Updated: Aug 24, 2022

Catus, cata, catum

An imposing cut-out silhouette of a menacing black cat stands on the sill of an open window space of La Halle, the covered market-place serving the village of Catus in the Lot Département of south-west France.

Legend has it that once upon a time a large cat roamed the area terrorising local inhabitants. Eventually a courageous chevalier faced up to the monster, killing it with his sword. Unfortunately, in celebrating his famous triumph he fell from his horse and died from his wounds. Today le chat is used as a symbol for the village of CATus.

The stylised metal cut-out I refer to is not an arbitrary image of a cat. It is based on an illustration of a black cat depicted on a poster advertising Le Chat Noir, one of the most famous cabaret venues of fin de siècle Paris. Originally sited in the Boulevard de Rochachouart, the entrepreneurial owner, Rodolphe Salis, relocated the cabaret to the more artistic quarter of Montmartre. Famous for its broadminded entertainment, performers such as Aristide Bruant, whose debonair personality had been brought to life in a wonderful series of posters by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, delighted in insulting his audience whilst singing his bawdy songs. Now situated in rue de Laval [later changed to rue Victor Massé, named after the composer] the cabaret attracted a more diverse audience. Regular attendees included Franc-Nohain, Paul Verlaine, Henri Rivière, Claude Debussy, Eric Satié, Paul Signac, and of course the bon viveur and artist, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.

Cover of La Revue Illustrée, 1893, the Chat Noir journal
The cover illustration advertises “Paroles et Musique de Aristide Bruant”

Théophile Steinlen,
1896 lithographic poster advertising the re-opening of Chat Noir after refurbishment

In 1896, when commissioning an illustrated poster for the cabaret, Salis turned not to Toulouse-Lautrec but to Théophile Steinlen, an artist not yet known for poster design. Born in Switzerland Steinlen came to live in Montmartre where there was more chance of selling his work. His illustrations adorned the covers and interior pages of literary journals such as Gil Blas, known partly for its opinionated arts and theatre criticism, but also for serialising novels before they were published in book form. He excelled in depicting Parisian street-life, observing characters as they went about their work in Montmartre itself. He had a passion for cats too – they often appeared in his prints and other published work. He was the ideal artist to bring to life Rodolphe Salis’ request to produce a general poster for Le Chat Noir, and another which would be used to advertise a travelling show with poets and composers accompanying its famous shadow theatre [see below].

Le Chat Noir was influential in reviving the art of the shadow play, sparking a renewed popularity in France in the art of projecting cut-out shadow puppets on to a screen. The stylised silhouette of the cat came from Steinlen’s observation of the feline species, but more importantly it was drawn in a style reminiscent of Japanese woodcuts – a style generally referred to as Japonisme. Japanese art and design was especially popular with artists of this period, Toulouse-Lautrec even created a Japanese style monogram to stamp on his works.

Interior of Le Chat Noir
Shadow theatre projection

Théophile Steinlen, poster advertising a specialist lithographic poster printing company – Charles Verneau

This poster is huge – made up of 6 sheets. It depicts a cross-section of Parisian street-life [including a washerwoman / blanchisseuese]. The girl with the hoop is the artist’s daughter

The metal cut-out cat in La Halle at Catus is clearly an homage to the image depicted on Steinlen’s poster advertising Le Chat Noir. The Catus cat has one more point of reference however. Only metres away from La Halle there once stood a hardware store, now converted into the Bureau d’Information Touristique de Catus which houses an exhibition gallery known as Éspace Lagaspie.

Armand Lagaspie (1873-1963 was an important figure in the recent history of Catus. An amateur artist, a writer and poet, he knew the Montmartre of Toulouse-Lautrec and Théophile Steinlen. He may even have visited le Chat Noir. A bout of ill-health brought him to Catus where he established a hardware store, selling all manner of useful household items, as well as bicycles and bike parts. He continued to write poetry and other texts as well as keeping up his artistic interests. He committed his observations of Paris life to the interior walls of the building. Some of these paintings have been preserved when the store was turned into the Tourist Office you see today. Go in the main door and turn left. There you will find a rich mural depicting street-life in Paris with a washerwoman in the foreground. This is painted in Steinlen’s style and might well have been copied from one of his prints, or perhaps it was simply Lagaspie’s homage to the great artist of the art nouveau period.

Fresco by

Armand Lagaspie

Hand-coloured etching by

Théophile Steinlen

Washerwomen [returning from work]

Les Blanchisseueses

One last story - I found this wonderful poster [circa 1898] advertising Michelin cycle tyres, overprinted with Lagaspie's name and "Catus". It was designed by an artist who signed his works "O'Galop". His real name was Marius Rossillon. He created the Michelin character known as Bibendum - still in use today!

If in Gourdon, on a fair day

In Martel, Figeac or Autoire,

The price of truffles is pitiful,

Eggs halved

At the resellers, without any trouble,

Like herrings,

These eggs increase per dozen

By a few francs

One verse of a song written by Armand Lagaspie

j'espère le faire traduire en français


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