Bold, colorful designs from the golden age of poster art look as fresh today as they did in the 1890s.
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Poster collecting dates back to the beginning of poster making. In Paris in the 1890s, a new era of poster design began when fine artists, aided by new printing techniques, turned their skills to creating eye-grabbing, sophisticated images for advertisers. As works by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Pierre Bonnard, Félix Vallotton, and other art stars began appearing around the city, collectors took to following the bill-posters through the streets, hoping to buy some—or get them free if they were lucky—before the glue was applied and they were slapped up on a wall or a billboard. Thus was born affichomanie, or poster mania.
Today, poster mania persists, with aficionados of colorful, large-format advertising art seeking examples from the early days through the Art Deco era, the postwar boom, the Pop ’60s and even the ’80s. But the poster art of the 1890s has a special allure, not just because of its place in history but because of the uniquely bold and beautiful quality of its aesthetic. Large areas of flat, pure color—the reds and greens are particularly memorable—saturate these images, framed by hand lettering in typographies never seen before. Eschewing busy compositions and fine details, and bearing in mind that the human eye likes nothing better than to see a human being, the artists usually placed a large dominant figure in the foreground. More often than not it’s a beautiful woman, then as now a sure-fire sales booster no matter what the product. Extreme angles and unconventional perspectives are also common features of ’90s posters, embodying the experimental, eclectic atmosphere of the visual arts at the time. Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Expressionism and Japanese ukiyo-e each had something to contribute to the developing art of poster-making.
None of this would have been possible without a breakthrough in printing technology—color lithography with separations, which allowed large multicolored images to be created in quantity. One man, Jules Chéret, gets the credit for introducing (though not for inventing) this process and making it affordable, thereby becoming the “father of poster art.” In 1866, Chéret opened a lithography shop that would eventually blossom into a major publisher called Imprimerie Chaix. As an artist, Chéret made as much or more of an impact as he did as a publisher. He was the first to use a true poster style rather than a style adapted from painting—although his main artistic influences were Rococo-era painters such as Fragonard and Watteau—and he was the first to draw directly on the lithographic stone. He also pioneered the use of the pretty poster girl as a sales aid, be it for cigarettes, ice skating, or a theatrical performance. His “Chérettes,” as they were known — joyous, uninhibited-looking, and light on their feet — were soon omnipresent, enticing the rising middle class of the Belle Epoque.
Collecting posters from that period is still very possible. Gone are the days, of course, when a box might be cracked open to reveal a stash of unused 1890s posters that had been forgotten in a stock room somewhere. Forty years ago that could still happen, according to New York dealer Mark Weinbaum, but not today. Still, since posters entered the collectible market so long ago, many examples were well preserved and are periodically traded. Toulouse-Lautrec is probably the most coveted poster artist—his indelible images of music-hall stars like Jane Avril and La Goulue epitomize the spirit of the ’90s, with their mixture of exuberance and decadence, and represent the best of the innovative graphic energy of an era when great artists did not consider it “selling out” to design a poster.
A large Toulouse-Lautrec poster in excellent condition can go for $50,000 or more. Chéret’s posters are more affordable and available, partly because while they are delightful, they lack Toulouse-Lautrec’s modernist daring, and partly because he was so prolific, having created some 700 designs over a 40-year period. His posters average $2,000–3,000, with top examples going for $15,000 or so, according to Jack Rennert, owner and founder of the International Poster Center in New York, which holds four poster sales a year. The Belgian Theo van Rysselberghe is another fine artist who is relatively affordable, says San Francisco dealer Sarah Stocking. She is offering a poster he designed to promote an artists’ group called La Libre Esthetique in 1900, priced at $9,000. Theophile Steinlen, known for his sensitively observed, somewhat feral-looking cats, is another ultra-elegant poster designer whose works can be reasonably affordable.
English and American posters of the 1890s represent excellent value, in general. Their designers were strongly influenced by French trends of the day, and also by Pre-Raphaelitism and the Arts & Crafts aesthetic of book-printing. In fact, most American posters were done for the publishing industry, to advertise books and magazines. Since they were intended to be hung in shop windows or indoors rather than on hoardings in the streets, they are smaller in format. Edward Penfield, whom Stocking calls “the Chéret of the United States,” was the art director of Harper’s Magazine and created about 45 posters for it between 1893 and 1898, some of which doubled as magazine covers. His distinctive style, influenced by Steinlen, involved popping the lettering outside the frame of the image, and popping the heads of the human figures into the lettering, Stocking explains. They are not too scarce on the market, because Harper’s overprinted them to meet collector demand, says Rennert. In the mid-1890s they were selling for 25 or 50 cents apiece, but by 1900 the price had gone up to $3 to $10, as Penfield himself apologetically informed an inquiring collector at the time. Today, Penfield posters can be had for the relatively small sum of $1,000–1,500.
Other great American poster designers include Will Bradley, a polymathic and manically energetic graphic designer, writer and publisher who put out his own “little magazine” called Bradley: His Book, for which he performed all tasks, artistic and editorial. He worked so hard that a few years of this resulted in a nervous breakdown, after which Bradley moved on to easier and more remunerative work for various advertising agencies. Like Chéret (1836–1932), he was exceptionally long-lived (1868–1962). His style is somewhat reminiscent of William Morris’ Kelmscott Press. Thomas G. Boss, an antiquarian bookseller and poster dealer in Boston, calls attention to Ethel Reed, an under-recognized pioneering American poster designer. Something of a prodigy, she did all her work—25 posters—between the ages of 18 and 21, then disappeared from the scene. “She was the only woman poster artist at the time, and the only woman artist with a national reputation,” says Boss. She was way ahead of her time in creating posters that didn’t show the product to be sold, only images that created a certain state of mind in the viewer that they would later associate with the product. Her last poster was an ad for a railroad that depicted no trains, tracks or passengers.
The English poster stars included Aubrey Beardsley, the eccentric decadent who illustrated Oscar Wilde’s Salome and the Morte D’Arthur and made posters for book publishers, and the two-artist team who called themselves The Beggarstaffs (William Nicholson and James Pryde). They used extremely bold and simple blocks of color in a style strongly influenced by Japanese woodblock printmaking.
One of Chéret’s great ideas as a publisher was to meet popular demand for poster images by reprinting them in a small format series called Les Maîtres de l’Affiche (Masters of the Poster). Subscribers would receive four 11-by-15-inch miniature posters every month in the mail; the series, which included many of the top English and American poster artists as well as the French, topped out at 256 designs. They were printed using exactly the same process as the large-format originals. Collecting Maîtres de l’Affiche today is a great way to get classic images—many of which are almost unattainable in full size—on beautiful old paper in original lithographic inks at prices from $500 to $1,000. And it’s a very satisfying way to join the golden chain of golden-age poster collectors stretching all the way back to the beginnings in the Belle Epoque.