The population of Paris in the late nineteenth century was a complex crowd of social classes and professional groups.
Printmakers sought to express their modern society by depicting general types, identifiable from their posture, facial expression, gestures, clothes and attributes.
The same types were found in the illustrated press, in literature and in the theatre, and were immediately recognisable to contemporaries.
This ‘coded language’ was hugely popular among Parisians, and it helped them to classify and make sense of the mass of people.
Colorful Street Scenes
Rich and poor, capitalist and bohemian all sauntered along the same boulevards in the fin-de-siècle period under the banner of liberty, equality and fraternity.
Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen’s monumental poster La rue uses types of this kind to sum up this multifarious society.
The laundress with her basket, the worker with his cap, the fashionable Parisienne and the bourgeois in his top hat all pass by.
Humor and Social Critique
Prints featuring types often exaggerate the habits of particular groups within the population.
Works like this regularly contain a satirical message or social critique wrapped up in a caricatural style.
Recurring themes include the exploitation of workers and artists, widespread prostitution, awkward situations sparked by class differences and the pretentiousness of bourgeois life.
Edmond de Goncourt et al., Les types de Paris, Paris 1889
Judith Wechsler, A Human Comedy: Physiognomy and Caricature in 19th Century Paris, London 1982
Richard Thomson et al., Toulouse-Lautrec and Montmartre, Washington 2005