ChatNoirSecondo

The Second Cabaret du Chat Noir: the rise and fall of a legend.

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The second Cabaret du Chat Noir was at 12 rue de Laval (today rue Victor-Massé, IX arrondissement) steps away from Place Pigalle. At the opening (1885) there was the cream of the artistic and intellectual community of the Paris of the Belle Époque, already habituée of the first cabaret, in boulevard de Rochechouart.

Secondo Chat Noir
M. Balda, Le Cabaret du Chat Noir, inside and outside of the second Chat Noir (1890, Musée de Montmartre, colletion Le Vieux Montmartre)

ACT III

A Designer furniture

The place was much larger than the first and developed on two floors. The patrons were many of the most brilliant minds of their time, and everyone contributed, more or less willingly and according to their talent, to rise the quality of the experiences the cabaret could offer, starting from the exterior.

The façade was a masterpiece in his own right whose decoration, overabundant as requeste by the eclectic taste of the time, was signed by three famous artists, let’s see:

Robida
The second Cabaret du Chat Noir drawn by the caricaturist Albert Robida. The waiter in uniform at the entrance was actually there: according to Rodolphe Salis, founder, owner, and director of the cabaret, the guard added a bit of elegance to the place.

Over the entrance, well visible by passersby, a black pottery cat framed by a halo of golden rays stood as a symbol of the cabaret. The opera was signed by Alexandre Charpentier (1856-1909), sculptor and ebony artist, better known for the wonderful boiseries art nouveau he created for the inner of the most chic Parisian buildings. A majestic example of them is showed at the Musée d’Orsay.

Charpentier Art Nouveau
The boiserie designed by Alexandre Charpentier in 1901 for the dining room of a rich industrialist. (Musée d’Orsay).

Charpentier Art Nouveau

The two great lanterns illuminating the entrance were designed by Eugène Grasset (1845-1917) painter, engraver, publicist and graphic designer very well known in his time.

GrassetScultura
Éugène Grasset, Le Chat Noir, pottery sculpture (1885, Musée Montmartre).
Grasset
Eugène Grasset, AD for the L. Marquet Ink (1892, Musée des Arts Décoratifs).

The sign with the cat and the moon was taken from the first cabaret and was signed by Adolphe Willette (1857-1926) painter, illustrator, caricaturist and lithographer, as well as the big canvas of the Parce Domine decoring the interior of the place, today kept at the Musée de Montmartre.

Parce Domine Willette
«Parce Domine, Parce Populo Tuo» (‘Forgive, Lord, Forgive your people’) by Adolphe Willette (1884). The enormous painting decorating the inside of the Cabaret du Chat Noir represented the innocent youth (personified by the Pierrot below on the left) pushed towards self-destruction by the Parisians vices.(photo from Wikipedia).
Insegna Chat Noir
Sign of the cabaret du Chat Noir designed by Willette kept at Musée Carnavalet (IV arrondissement).

The Theatre of Shadows of the Chat Noir

These are just three of the many personalities participating in the life of the cabaret. Gathered in a stimulating environment, inspired by wine, they could really imagine and realize wonders. The most known was, no doubt, the adventure of the Theatre of Shadows.

On a nice sunny morning, painter Henri Rivière (1864-1951), whose Parisian landscapes are still dreamy today, suggested Rodolphe Salis (1851-1897), founder, owner, and director of the Chat Noir to add to the Chat Noir a puppet theatre.

 

Riviere
One of the famous “Thirty-six views of the Tour Eiffel” Henri Rivière drew between 1888 and 1902. The painter wanted to homage not only the new, renowned tower but also the Japanese artist Hokusai (1760-1849) of which he had the “Thirty-Six views of Mount Fuji”(photo from BnF). The connection with the style of the Japanese prints is evident, but its implementation on western landscapes has a unique effect.

Thanks to the help of another habitué of the place, artist Henry Somm (1844-1907), the project was changed in a Theatre of Shadows, a kind of show inspired by traditional Shadow puppets, developing and enriching the format.

 

Somm
The Elegant and the swan by Henry Somm (ca. 1900, photo from Wikipedia).

The shows were staged on the cabaret’s second floor, the so-called Salle des fêtes (‘Party room’), while the ground floor was called Guard Room – clearly, Rodolphe Salis’s fantasy didn’t leave a single detail out, from the waiter’s livery to the name of the rooms. The success was immediate.

ChatNoirSecondo
The “Party room” of the second Cabaret du Chat Noir (image from www.lafertealais.com)

To the staging of the pièces worked various patrons of the cabaret. The writers worked on the scripts, the songwriters wrote dedicated songs, the artists painted the scenes and the silhouettes of the shadows, the composers played the musical scores – often on the piano – and so on.

 

Ombre Chat Noir
Some shadows used in the Theatre of Shadows of the Chat Noir (Musée de Montmartre) whose screen, as it seems, was a mere square meter.

At first, the shadows were made with cardboard, then they were changed into zinc silhouettes, a material that made it possible to have neater and more expressive shapes.

Ombre Chat Noir
Musée de Montmartre.

The staging wasn’t simple at all, see the widespread use of special effects that had to be activated just at the right moment, the wires, the very small space behind the screen, etc.

 

Effetto speciale ombre
A special effect for the Theatre of Shadows of the Chat Noir: that’s how you made a shadow smoke. (Musée de Montmartre).
Chat noir teatro culisses
Behind the scenes of the Theatre of Shadows (Musée de Montmartre).

Despite this – or maybe because of these peculiarities – the Theatre of Shadows was often sold-out, so much to convince Rodolphe Salis to organize tournées. Truth be told, the cabaret’s shows were warmly welcomed even outside the Ville Lumière, up to go beyond Europe (the Chicago show remains in the annals).

Steinlen Locandina Tournée Chat Noir
Playbill by Théophile Steinlen (1859-1923) for the tournée of the Theatre of Shadows of the Chat Noir (1890).

Alas, it is known, success is feeble. The Chat Noir had changed the life of Montmartre and inspired the opening of many more cabarets which, in return, stole its limelight. Rodolphe Salis took the event with his usual composure and, after chopping off the cabaret’s interior, swore he’ll open a third one on the Grands Boulevards. In truth, the tournées had exhausted him, both physically and psychologically so, for the first time in his life, he lacked the strength to fulfill his idea.

 

Salis
Rudolphe Salis,self-portrait (1875, Musée de Montmartre).

Salis died in 1897 and his Chat Noir couldn’t but follow him, faithfully and in silence, leaving here and there the fragments of a legend, as stealthy as the velvety steps of a cat, made of ink, zinc, music and pottery.

«We were many when we started, the legion we were in that Chat Noir where we found so much joy and left us so many bitter memories. How many are we today, how many disappeared, Caran-d’Ache, Alexandre Charpentier, let’s not count, they’re too many…»
Théophile Steinlen
in una lettera ad Adolphe Willette
20 febbraio 1906