Saturday, July 31, 2010


Nearly the entire contents of the Musée d'Orsay has been shipped to San Francisco's deYoung Museum for safekeeping, while jackhammers do their work to upgrade the old Parisian train-station-cum-Impressionist-museum.  Not to be outdone, our sturdy replica of the Legion d'Honneur, just up the road, has the 'City of Light' show, all about late 19th Century Paris, using the remarkable contents of the Achenbach Foundation's collection of art on paper, which includes much 'commercial' work by post-Impressionist notables like Toulouse Lautrec, Alphonse Mucha, etc.

The largest print on show (at some two metres tall) is an advertisement for 'Motocycles Comiot' from 1899, drawn by Théophile Alexandre Steinlen (most famous for his 'Chat Noir'), who clearly considered the noisy three-wheeler not especially artworthy, and has nearly obscured the tricycle behind spooked geese and milady's voluminous skirting.  Still, Steinlen saw the machine, and has given at least an indication of its merits; all black paint, with various hand controls bolted to the top frame rail, and long steel levers for the brakes, á la bicycles of the period...the front pads dangling over the tire for a beastly method of retardation, shortly never to be seen again.

What would be seen again in short order is milady herself, piloting a motorized bicycle or tricycle along the muddy unpaved tracks of the countryside, undaunted.  This poster could well be our first image of a woman on such a vehicle, and it wasn't a flight of artistic fancy - women were right there among the first riders of bicycles and motorcycles, bucking 'feminine' conventions of the day and enjoying that familiar addictive sensation of powered motion under her control.  Steinlen hasn't sexualized his rider or cast her as goddess-slave, she is simply a woman of the period, smartly dressed, riding the Future.

What a remarkable historical juncture; into the world of the Moulin Rouge, Monet's gardens at Giverny, and Degas' pastel ballerinas, chuff the ancestors of all Motorcycling, nosing their way into the artwork of the period, with a woman at the helm.  Cheeky.

(Mr. Comiot participated in the 1897 Paris-Dieppe Trial on a De Dion-Bouton tricycle, winning 17th place; perhaps he felt he could have won on a machine of his own devising, and by 1898 we find Comiot tricycles using De Dion engines, a few of which survive today.  I found the photos above from the Royal Veteran Car Club of Belgium.  
 FYI, an example of this poster sold at Sotheby's last June for 24,000euros. )