Born in Lausanne, in the French speaking part of Switzerland, Steinlen studied at the local University before taking a job as a designer trainee at a textile mill in eastern France. In his early twenties he was still developing his skills as a painter when he and his new wife were encouraged by the painter François Bocion to move to the artistic community of Montmartre in Paris. Once there, Steinlen was befriended by the painter Adolphe Willette who introduced him to the crowd at Le Chat Noir which led to his commissions for the cabaret owner and entertainer, Aristide Bruant as well as other commercial enterprises. The posters he created during this time are some of the most well known in the world.
In the early 1890s, Steinlen’s paintings of rural landscapes, flowers, and nudes were being shown at the Salon des Indépendants. His 1895 lithograph titled Les Chanteurs des Rues was the frontispiece to a work entitled Chansons de Montmartre published by Éditions Flammarion with sixteen original lithographs that illustrated the Belle Epoque songs of Paul Delmet. His home, Montmartre and its environs, was a favorite subject throughout Steinlen’s life and he often painted scenes of life in the area. In addition to paintings and drawings, he also did sculpture on a limited basis, most notably figures of cats, for which he had great affection.
He became a regular contributor to Le Rire and Gil Blas magazines plus numerous other publications including L’Assiette au Beurre and Les Humouristes, a short-lived magazine he and a dozen other artists jointly founded in 1911. Between 1883 and 1920, he produced hundreds of illustrations, a number of which were done under a pseudonym so as to avoid political problems due to their criticisms of societal ills.