Skip to main content

Printmaker Théophile Steinlen Used Art to Advocate for Social Change in 1900s France

Created at the turn of the twentieth century, two works on paper by Swiss French artist Théophile Steinlen, part of the Alfred Stieglitz Collection, illustrate the artist’s active engagement with, and deep commitment to, the local communities of both the working class and the artists in Paris.


Steinlen’s 1902 aquatint L’enfant malade, or The sick child, presents an intimate scene of a mother caring for the ailing infant mentioned in the title. In the center of the composition, a woman rests her chin on her left hand while her right hand supports the neck of the baby resting in her lap. Her shoulders curve over the young child protectively as she gazes into the distance with pinched brows.

Steinlen conveys the mother’s worry for the health of her child at a time when many infants in France were being sickened, and dying, due to tampered milk. In fact, an early version of this composition was published in a special issue of the weekly satirical Parisian magazine L’Assiette au Beurre in order to call attention to the public health crisis caused by contaminated milk.


a magazine cover depicting an illustration of a ghoulish figure dressed as a milkman delivering a jug of tainted milk
Title page of L’Assiette au Beurre, February 22, 1902. Translation of French title reads: The licensed poisoners, The milk falsifiers.

Published on February 22, 1902, the special issue was titled “Les empoisonneurs patentés, Les falsificateurs de lait,” or “The licensed poisoners, The milk falsifiers,” and gathered together works by more than 50 artists that criticized the milk industry for knowingly selling purposefully adulterated milk to desperate families. Steinlen’s work was accompanied with the caption, “Bénis plutôt les laitiers…pour ce qui attend la vie les enfants des pauvres,” which translates to “Rather, bless the dairys [sic], for what lives would otherwise await the children of the poor.” The caption sarcastically praises the dairy farm for producing milk that harmed families and children already suffering from poverty.

Steinlen, as seen in L’enfant malade, focused deeply on depicting the poverty and social inequities suffered by the working class in his neighborhood. Born in Switzerland in 1859, Steinlen moved to Paris in 1881 and by his death in 1923 had produced hundreds of prints illustrating the prostitutes, singers, laborers, and families of the city. One of Steinlen’s contemporaries characterized the artist’s oeuvre as “humaine par dessus tout,” “human above all else.”


L’enfant malade illustrates Steinlen’s empathy toward those in his neighborhood as he conveys the deep anxiety the mother feels for her sick child. In fact, another impression of this plate is titled A desperately unhappy woman cradling her sick child, pointing to the strong emotion the artist evokes between these two anonymous figures.


The emotions present between the mother and child are further heightened by the medium of the work of art. L’enfant malade is an aquatint, a printmaking technique that produces tonal effects, rather than harsh lines. Here, black shadows with soft edges surround the central pair of figures and create a dim atmosphere. The shadows on the woman’s face and the color of her dress blend smoothly with the surrounding environment, creating a piece with uniform lighting rather than areas of high contrast. This tonal composition, paired with the curved contours of the woman’s body and the gentle manner in which she cradles the sick baby, imbues the scene with a sense of warmth.


Steinlen’s works reveal his connection to not only the working class of his neighborhood, but also his engagement with the local circle of artists. When Steinlen arrived in Paris at the age of 21, he and his wife settled in Montmartre, a neighborhood well known for its vibrant artistic community. It was in Montmartre that Steinlen began producing poster art for local cabarets as well as for newspapers and magazines. The majority of Steinlen’s works were thus designed to be mass produced and then distributed to the public. However, Steinlen also worked with publishers to produce limited series of his prints.

The 1896 lithograph Misère, or Misery, demonstrates this practice. A stamp in the right margin of the print reads “E. Kleinmann;” Édouard Kleinmann ran a print shop in Paris in the 1890s and counted Steinlen, as well as many of his contemporaries such as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, among his clients. Kleinmann elevated the work Steinlen published in newspapers and magazines by producing a limited quantity of high quality prints. For example, the pencil mark at the bottom-right-hand corner of Misère reads “23/50,” indicating that this work was part of a limited run of 50 impressions. Publishing Steinlen’s prints as collectible works of fine art demonstrated that Steinlen’s compositions, and therefore his messages advocating against social inequity, were valuable.


L’enfant malade and Misère represent how Steinlen centered and leveraged personal relationships in his artistic practice in order to support social reform. He used the poignant image of a mother holding her sick, possibly dying, child to criticize the corrupt dairy industry. He also disseminated his message to the public and wealthy patrons by publishing his works in newspapers and magazines as well as limited editions. These prints, created over a century ago, demonstrate how artists can advocate for social change through their work and their community engagement.


Written by Chloé Glass, 2022 Havner Curatorial Intern, Yale University ’22, Courtauld Institute of Art MA ’23.