Henri de

France • 1864−1901


Анри де Тулуз-Лотрек, Альфонс Муха… Их плакаты знает весь мир. Какие факторы привели к возникновению столь особого жанра? Говорим об истоках, развитии, особенностях этого вида искусства и показываем работы разных мастеров.

Where and when?

Posters have been known since ancient times. On the streets of ancient Athens and Rome, in the open houses of Pompeii, placed on columns or pillars in crowded places, they informed citizens about the current events of city life. The codes of state laws, court decisions, announcements about performances or sports competitions were engraved on marble and metal plates.
However, as a unique phenomenon in art history, as a brainchild of artists, poster only appeared in the second half of the 19th century in Western Europe: this event only became possible in a certain context of time and place.


In the middle of the 19th century, theatre integrated various types of arts instead of the previously used synthetic genres of architecture, landscape park, castle and museum. After the Great French Revolution, theatre left the palaces of noble persons, crowding square booths, and became available to the general public, the bourgeoisie. The European performing arts started its new life with fresh energy. It was during this period that the most significant theatre buildings and opera palaces were built.
Painting also began to serve the theatre, developing in two directions: internal and external. The former one is scenery, sketches of costumes, interiors, various decorative and design work. The latter, external direction is the poster as the “face” of the theatre, which, in fact, gave life to the artistic poster direction.
At the same time, the second industrial revolution provided artists with the new opportunities for their creative experiments. Chromolithography appeared, and later, photo-chromolithography followed, which made it possible to create large-scale multi-colour images with the least difficulty.
And one more important point. The posters printing increasingly left the regulated control of state printing houses and printing houses at imperial theatres (in Russia, only the police authorities had the right to print advertisements and posters). Private studios with printing and lithographic presses sprout like mushrooms as the wealth of the middle class grew.

Poster features

The poster painting was especially influenced by the fact that it was shown in a fundamentally different place: not in intimate spaces of museums or galleries, but on advertising stands, in theatre rooms and advertising brochures. In other words, it came out into the street, to the people. Let's recall Mayakovsky: “Streets are our brushes. Squares are our palettes.”
A Paris street in an old photo: attention to posters! Photo Source: forum.infrance.su

This fundamental point determines the compositional features of the poster. It should be bright, with flashy colours, large objects, flat shapes, and laconic artistic solution. After all, the main task of the poster is to draw the viewer’s attention to any information, while the direct impact on the viewer is very short.
The average public is not aware of the subtleties and nuances of the high art of painting, so simplification and averaging are necessary in this case.
Among other things, the printing speed supposes additional requirements for the number of colours and standard sheet sizes.
The figure-background ratio is of great importance in the poster art. With proper use of three or four local contrasting colours, outline sharpness, silhouette of the image (very economical pictorial means), the artist can achieve the necessary expressiveness.

Left: Fritz Bleil. Poster for the first exhibition of The Bridge art group. 1906

Under such conditions and requirements, poster artists surely had to do some tricks so as not to fall into vulgarity while preserving their artistry. Therefore, the artists balanced between nude aesthetics, which seemed most beneficial in such conditions, and meaningful, but earthbound message.

The new relationship between font and image is also important for poster art. The font becomes an independent, often ornamental figure, involved in the general space of work. When poster enters the sphere of agitation and propaganda, the lettering will become even more significant than the image.
The new era of the poster, in the technical form of three- or four-colour lithography, was opened by Jules Chéret in the 1870s.

An employee of the Moulin Rouge and Toulouse-Lautrec at the Ball at the Moulin Rouge poster by Jules Chéret.
Photo Source: izbrannoe.com

The pioneer

It is interesting that Chéret, on the one hand, was a hereditary lithographer, on the other hand, a self-taught artist. At the age of 13, without graduating from school, Jules studied from a lithographer for three years. Later, he attended the National School of Design in Paris, then he dropped everything and took up self-education.
Jules Chéret. Pan magazine cover. Lithograph. 1900. Source: sotherans.co.uk

Before creating theatrical posters, Chéret made illustrations and covers for novels, magazines, newspapers, booklets and other similar products. In total, over 120 such works were completed. In 1858, after a short ordeal period, he received his first large order, posters for Offenbach’s operetta, Orpheus in Hell.
Poster for Offenbach’s operetta, Orpheus in Hell, by Jules Chéret. Interesting fact: the artist who worked on the stage set was Gustave Doré.

In this work by Jules Chéret, there is still a rather long and elaborate perspective, the background with grandiose action unfolding is saturated with details, the action is compositionally built towards the main characters — the large outlined foreground figures. There are still no catchy, bright and contrasting colours here, the colouring is quite soft.
All these features would appear later: Chéret went to London to study the English technique of colour lithography. There he met Eugène Rimmel, a perfumer who hired Chéret to work on the design of perfume packaging.
Certainly, this is not a perfume. Check out a subtle move: the poster for Saxoleine, safe kerosene for lamps, does not show the product itself. But how competently the simple product is presented through warm colours and a spectacular composition!

In 1866, Rimmel sent Chéret (together with his lithographic press) back to Paris in order to open a shop of coloured posters there: there was no such thing in the “capital of the world”. Having thus achieved creative independence, Chéret plunged headlong into the art of the poster.
In 1869, the artist introduced a new three-stone printing system: one black, one red and the third, decorative one (a background made by printing two colours from one stone, with “cool” colours at the top and “warm” colours at the bottom). This process became the basis for Chéret’s colour posters in the 1870s and 1880s. The artist has achieved what no one else has done before. On the same technical basis, his colleagues began to work — Steinlen, Grasset, the more eminent Toulouse-Lautrec and many others.
Jules Chere. Teatrion
1890, 124.2×87.4 cm
The théâtrophone depicted on the poster allowed one to listen to opera and theatre performances over the telephone lines.

The main subject of Chéret’s posters, is a graceful beauty Chérette, who flirted with the public of Parisian streets.
15 years before Florenz Siegfeld glorified the beauty and relaxedness of American girls, Paris heartly welcomed the manifestation of sex appeal on stage (and therefore on posters).

Jules Chéret is called “the father of artistic poster”, he gave lithography a new high status that was comparable to the genre of painting, and the outstanding artistic merit of his work only competed with the works of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.
The work by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec is a poster from the collection of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.

The followers

Chéret knew many famous artists of that time and, as already mentioned, his fellow craftsmen adopted his creative method. Among them were Eugène Grasset and Théophile Steinlen.
The work of Grasset tended towards Art Nouveau even more. In this style, he created the design of many things: from stained glass windows to book covers, from a piano to a menu, fulfilling the call of the modernity philosophy to make the entire subject environment of man beautiful.

In France, Grasset, just like William Morris in England, was the first to try to reconcile art and industry. Interested in all the applied arts, he naturally came to the poster.

Contemporaries compared Grasset’s special style, containing graphic elements, distinct outline and colour spot, to stained-glass windows. And regarding the works for the calendar, which the artist was commissioned in 1894, the poet and writer Léon Bloy wrote that their quality and execution level reminded him of the Renaissance religious iconography.

La Belle Jardiniere (The Beautiful Garden) calendar is one of the most outstanding and famous works by Eugène Grasset.

Grasse was deeply interested in old Japanese engravings, book illustrations of the Renaissance, graphics by medieval artists. The influence of the artists of the past is guessed in his sensitive, subtle and delicate images. His works are more intimate, calm and decorative than the posters by Chéret.

Eugène Grasset. Poster for the famous London Grafton Galleries. 1883

Steinlen, a younger contemporary of Grasset and Chéret, became famous for his posters for the Black Cat cabaret.

The artist’s focus was on the nightlife of Montmartre, the “capital of the arts”, and the cabaret was its central energy hub, the “place of power” of the entire Parisian bohemian movement.
On the poster for the Impressionist exhibition, Mothu et Doria (1893), Steinlen veiled his concerns of class inequality problem by contrasting “Paris having fun” and “Paris working”.

Steinlen did not portray maidens, he portrayed cats. They became a symbol of his painting; the “cat style” made him a name.
The first illustration in the slider is a milk ad that shows Steinlen’s daughter Colette tasting the product before giving it to the cats. This work has caused a lot of enthusiastic responses.

The other side of Steinlen’s creative career, painting and graphics was dedicated to the events of the First World War and the military conflicts in Serbia; it remained little noticed.

What’s next?

Over time, having received the initial impetus with theatre, art poster began to serve other areas of public life. With the emergence of cinema, an autonomous direction of artistic film posters arose.
33 cult movie posters by legendary designer Saul Bass are available in a special Arthive publication

During the First World War, posters were actively used as a means of agitation. In Bauhaus experiments, they were embedded in the general concept of industrial design. In Russia, in the era of revolution, the poster became a powerful propaganda tool, and after the Second World War it called for peace and harmony.
View of the Ephemeroids. XX Century In A Poster exposition in Kyiv

Production technologies were changing, the style was constantly changing too. At some point (closer to our time), the poster left the sphere of artistic creation and took a firm place in the field of advertising design.

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Written by Denys Myronov.

Title illustration: Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Ambassadors: Aristide Bruant in His Cabaret. 1893. Detail. Read the artwork description on Arthive.