Posterism In The “Belle Époque”: Characteristics And Most Important Authors


After the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871), Europe seemed to wake up from a nightmare. The end of the bloody war, which had pitted the decadent Second French Empire against Prussia, seemed to restore optimism and joy to the citizens.; especially, in what were the great capitals of the time: Vienna and Paris. What history would know as La Belle Époque (The Beautiful Era) has just begun.

This is a fascinating and eminently dynamic period, which occupied the almost fifty years between 1871 and 1914, the year in which another war, the World War, once again darkened the continent. Europeans had the sensation of having experienced a mirage, a kind of “paradise lost”, and, since then, when they looked back, they spoke of the Belle Époque and its pleasures cut short by the war.

In today’s article we talk about this “golden” era and its most forceful plastic expression: the creation of advertising posters.. Next, we take a short tour of the time when art and advertising merged and gave rise to one of the most creative artistic expressions: poster art.

What is the Belle Époque?

We have already discussed in the introduction the reason for such a name: it is the “beautiful era”, carefree and happy, which includes from the end of the Franco-Prussian War to the beginning of the First World War. It is, therefore, a period marked by two war conflicts that deeply impressed the population; especially, the second, which lasted four long years and brought practically all European youth into the ranks..

In contrast, the interwar years are years of joy, beauty and desire to live. Successive industrial revolutions have injected resounding optimism in the people, who are witnessing unprecedented economic flourishing. It is also the era of fierce positivism, which leaves all explanation and all hope for the future in the hands of science. And it is also, of course, the dawn of the consumer society, to which we are indebted.

The businessmen of the Belle Époque found themselves with an enormous amount of money as a result of technical and productive advances (serial production reduced costs greatly), but they wanted much more. It was necessary to sell, the public had to be “forced” to consume products, even those that were not strictly necessary. The proletarian hordes that flooded the cities and crowded into the most miserable neighborhoods must also become infected with the virus of consumerism; Only in this way would the enormous wheel of capitalism continue to turn..

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The birth of posterism

But how could these money-hungry businessmen get their products to humble people? The majority did not know how to read, so it was impossible for them to access the advertisements published in newspapers (which, until then, had been the main means of disseminating products). However, it was “necessary” for them to know what was being sold at all times, and it was also necessary to awaken their desire to consume at all costs.

The poster more than fulfilled this mission. Because, unlike publication advertisements, The posters were placed in any public place: train stations, boulevards, kiosks, subways, trams. Any citizen could access the information that these advertisements offered; even the working classes, who, by the way, used public transportation to get around.

Jules Chéret, the “father” of poster art

The one considered the “father” of poster art is Jules Chéret (1836-1932), who, in 1866, created his own printing business based on his revolutionary discovery: large-scale color printing. Actually, Color lithography had existed for decades, but Chéret made it possible for a single image to be reproduced endlessly.. This, of course, was crucial in the advertising business, so Parisian businessmen soon took notice of it.

Chéret also laid the foundations for what would be the prototype poster of the Belle Époque. Instead of simple ads based on long-winded phrases, the businessman designed a new advertising idea that reduced the text to two or three words and focused all its strength on the image. The new concept was revolutionary, since the posters, located on billboards and in public places in the city, had to have the necessary impact to attract the attention of passers-by.

The influence of Jules Chéret on later poster art is evident. Segolène Le Men, expert art historian, is very categorical about this: the businessman invented poster art as an art. This is stated in an interesting article from El Mundo Cultura (see bibliography), regarding the exhibition that, in 2017, was held at the French Institute of Madrid, and which reviewed the trajectory of poster art in the Belle Époque with 50 of its works. .


Colors, dynamism and women

We have already commented how the most notable innovation of Chéret’s new poster design is the use of vivid and cheerful colors, which had the function of positively impacting the mood of the passer-by. On the other hand, it is equally notable that the characters used by the businessman for his advertising are all of the bourgeois class, as denoted by his sophisticated suits and accessories. The idea was that the worker saw the product in question as a vehicle to “access” the same social status as the characters on the poster, a psychological resource that is still used in the advertising world..

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On the other hand, in the posters promoted by Chéret, women take a practically absolute role. These are happy and lively women, who show the product with great dynamism. We find beautiful examples, such as the advertisement for Saxoliéne, a brand of oil for domestic use, where an elegant and strong woman dressed in yellow appears showing us her lamp and looking at us smiling. Or that of the famous Job cigarette paper, where, again, a woman dressed in a dress with extravagant sleeves (following the refined fashion of the moment) directs her confident and somewhat defiant gaze towards us, while she savors a cigarette.

From then on, the female figure will forever be associated with advertising. Other great poster artists, such as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901) or Alphonse Mucha (1860-1939) used it in their designs, although with different styles. Lautrec presents almost caricature-like women who seem taken from Japanese prints; Mucha, on the other hand, creates authentic mythological nymphs that will be a reference for Art Noveau..

The fusion between art and advertising

If businessmen benefited enormously from new ideas in advertising creation, emerging artists also saw in this world an opportunity to achieve fame and get rich. At the end of the 19th century, Paris was the artistic epicenter of Europe, and many aspiring artists came to the capital, attracted by the cultural and economic effervescence of that Belle Époque. Soon, businessmen and artists realized that they “needed” each other, and that was when the rise of poster art was unstoppable..

These new artists created extraordinarily attractive designs that people not only looked at on the street, but even ripped off the walls and took home. It became fashionable to collect advertising posters, and people wanted to obtain a reproduction of the most original design of the season. All of this, of course, not only guaranteed fame to the artist who had made them, but for the businessman it meant that his product was on everyone’s lips. In short, it was a perfect symbiosis.

Posterism had another important function: that of bringing art and new artistic trends to the general public.. Thus, in the posters of the Belle Époque the styles in vogue of the moment were fused: the craze for the East and Japanese prints, especially evident in the work of Lautrec; Fauvism and its unreal and striking colors, the taste for curves and undulations and, above all, the incipient Art Noveau that began to fill everything and of which, in its advertising version, Mucha is its best exponent.

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The great poster artists

There were many names associated with Belle Époque poster art. Below, we cite the most important ones and some of their most recognized works.

1. Théophile A. Steinlen (1859-1923)

His masterpiece, Le chat noir (The Black Cat), has been reproduced endlessly and is a true symbol of poster art of the time. Designed as an advertisement for the Parisian café of the same name, Steinlen puts as its absolute protagonist a huge, schematic black cat with a disturbing look, more than probably inspired by the story by Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849).

Steinlen was born in Switzerland in 1859, but from a very young age he lived in Paris and frequented the more than bohemian neighborhood of Montmartre, where he rubbed shoulders with emerging artists and the most demanding currents in art.. Many of his posters are known worldwide, but, unfortunately, his name is not usually linked to them (as is the case with Lautrec and Mucha).

2. Henri de Tolouse-Lautrec (1864-1901)

He is, possibly, the great genius of poster art at the end of the 19th century. Born into a noble family, but deeply traumatized by his appearance (the result of a congenital illness), Toulouse-Lautrec always frequented the Parisian underworld, and in them he found the inspiration he needed for his works.

Very especially linked to the Moulin Rouge and other cabarets in the city, Lautrec created authentic poster masterpieces, in which he captured an air of Japanese print (so in vogue at the time) with his flat, cut-out figures and his cartoonish style.. Some of her best-known creations are La Goulue (1891), where this famous Moulin Rouge dancer appears in full dance, Divan Japonais (1895) or the advertising poster for the dancer Jane Avril (1893).

3. Alphonse Mucha (1860-1939)

Mucha is the undisputed king of the modernist poster. Many artists were inspired by his creations, based on a foliage full of flowers and branches directly inspired by nature and on female figures that seem straight out of a fairy tale.

His first great success came from Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923), who commissioned him to advertise her play Gismonda. The actress was so impressed by the Czech’s work that she asked him for new designs, where she appears dressed like her in a dream: La dame aux camélias (1896), La Samaritaine (1897) or Medée (1898). With all of them, Mucha inaugurated a new style in poster art, which drew directly from the reveries of Art Noveau..