After studying at the University at Lausanne and working as an apprentice designer in a textile factory in Mulhouse, Steinlen arrived in Paris in 1881 and quickly established himself in Montmartre, where he lived and worked for the rest of his life. In 1883 the illustrator Adolphe Willette introduced him to the avant-garde literary and artistic environment of the Chat Noir cabaret which had been founded in 1881 by another Swiss expatriot, Rodolphe Salis. Steinlen soon became an illustrator of its satirical and humorous journal, Chat noir, and an artistic collaborator with writers such as Emile Zola, poets such as Jean Richepin, composers such as Paul Delmet, artists such as Toulouse-Lautrec and, most important, the singer and songwriter Aristide Bruant, all of whom he encountered at the Chat Noir. Steinlen became the principal illustrator for Bruant’s journal Le Mirliton and for the various books containing his songs and monologues.
Steinlen created over 2000 illustrations for journals and books using the newly developed photo-relief printing processes and about 500 lithographic images for individual prints, music sheets, book covers and book illustrations as well as over 100 etchings. Throughout his long career Steinlen’s art was dominated by his humanitarian concerns. His work for the covers of the journals Chambard socialiste and Feuille reveal his anti-bourgeois, anti-military, socialist and anarchist sympathies, which at the time of the Dreyfus affair placed him actively on the side of the Dreyfusards.
Steinlen is best known for his bold, highly stylized black and red poster of 1896 for the Chat Noir. Between 1898 and 1902 he also executed over 30 personal and intimate colour etchings. In these delicate etchings of nudes and landscapes, produced in very small editions, Steinlen experimented with the media of softground and aquatint. During World War I he designed patriotic prints.
Steinlen was better known to the contemporary public than Toulouse-Lautrec, yet the two artists had in common such subjects as the cabaret performers Bruant and Yvette Guilbert and the theme of prostitution. Steinlen’s empathetic depictions of the poor influenced the early work of many artists who emerged at the beginning of the 20th century such as Picasso and Edward Hopper.