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Adolphe Willette
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Birth Place: 
Châlons-sur-Marne, France
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An anti-establishment artist who expressed the Bohemian spirit of Montmartre in late 19th-century Paris in his charming paintings, pastels, drawings and lithographs, Adolphe Willette was also a savage illustrator whose drawings reflected his political views supporting anarchism, socialism, and anti-Semitism. Despite his political views, he became a member of the Legion of Honor in 1906. Born in 1857 in the Marne district east of Paris, his father, an army colonel, moved the family to Paris in 1864. Willette studied in the studio of Alexandre Cabanel (1823-1889) at the École des Beaux-Arts from 1875, where he met Rudolphe Salis (1851-1897), the founder of the Montmartre cabaret Le Chat Noir (The Black Cat). Willette made his debut in the official Paris Salon exhibition of 1881 with his painting Tentation de saint Antoine (Temptation of Saint Anthony), and exhibited similar academic works to the Salons of 1882 and 1883. After Salis opened Le Chat Noir in 1881, Willette contributed several decorations for the cabaret, including the entrance sign, a black cat sitting on a silver crescent moon (Musée Carnavalet, Paris) and the painting Parce Domine (Save us, God, 1884, Musée de Montmartre, Paris. The painting ws done in a charming style that was later compared to that of Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721). Willette also contributed illustrations to the journal Le Chat Noir from its beginning in 1882 through 1888. After Salis moved the Chat Noir to larger quarters in 1885, Parce Domine was installed in the new premises, along with a stained glass window and several paintings by Willette. He provided illustrations for the theatrical journal Les Premières Illustrées from 1881 until 1889. His first of many illustrations for the Le Courrier français, a journal featuring Montmartre artists and writers, appeared in 1885; he continued to draw for the journal until 1908. In 1886 two notably anti-Semitic works of his appeared, a drawing on the cover of Le Courrier français and a painting exhibited at the Salon des Indépendants. He exhibited his paintings and drawings at an 1888 solo exhibition in Paris. Willette created color lithographs illustrating theater programs for André Antoine’s (1858-1943) Théâtre Libre in 1888, 1891 and 1892. He founded the illustrated journal Le Pierrot (The Clown) in 1888, and the following year began contributing illustrations to the anarchist journal Le Père Peinard. He ended his association with Salis and the Chat Noir around 1889, perhaps due to a dispute over pay. Always politically active, Willette unsuccessfully ran for a position on the legislative council for Paris’s ninth arrondissement in 1889 on an anti-Semitic platform, promoting himself with a strident poster. During the 1890s Willette created illustrations for L’Echo de Paris (Paris Gossip), La Plume (The Pen), Le Rire (Laughter) and the anti-Semitic journal Libre parole (Free Speech), as well as several books. He created decorations in several cafés and cabarets. He started the journal La Vache enragée (The Mad Cow) in 1896, for which he provided illustrations. His 1898 drawing Mort-aux-vaches (Death to Cows, meaning death to the police), showing a policeman with a prostitute, appeared on the cover for the anarchist journal La Feuille (The Sheet). Willette exhibited in the 1892 Exposition des Peintres Impressionistes et Symbolistes at the Barc de Boutteville gallery and at the 1894 Salon des Cent, and provided a poster advertising the 1897 Salon des Cent. He provided three lithographs for André Marty’s (1857-?) L’estampe originale, a set of ninety-five prints published by Marty in installments from 1893 through 1895. Around 1895 Willette was commissioned to design tapestries representing the provinces and cities of France for the Gobleins tapestry factory. He provided drawings to the anarchist journal L’Assiette au beurre (The Butter Plate) during 1901-1905 and began drawing for the satirical journal Le Canard sauvage with the cover illustration for its first issue in 1903. The next year he decorated the Salle des Commissions in the Hôtel de Ville, Paris and published an album Cent Dessins de Willette (One Hundred Drawings by Willette). His Parce Domine was exhibited in the 1908 Franco-British Exhibition in London. A retrospective exhibit of his work was mounted at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris in 1911. He exhibited regularly at the Salon des Artistes Français until at least 1922, and died in Paris in 1926. (TNB 10/2011) Selected bibliogaphy: Cate, Phillip Dennis and Patricia Eckert Boyer. The Circle of Toulouse-Lautrec. Exhibition catalog, pp. 70-78. New Brunswick, N.J.: The Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum: 1985. Fields, Armond. Le Chat noir: a Montmartre cabaret and its artists in turn-of-the century Paris, Santa Barbara: Santa Barbara Museum of Art, 1993. Monneret, Sophie. L’impressionisme et son époque. Vol. 3, p. 89. Paris; Éditions Denoël, 1978-1981.