Parisian Poster Art: Cheret, Mucha and Toulouse-Lautrec

In industrialised nations the Industrial Revolution created a new middle class, one with a surplus of leisure time and expendable income. In France this economic growth coincided with a period of peace and frivolity known as Belle Époque (Beautiful Era). An important visual element of the Belle Époque, especially in Paris, was the Lithographic poster. Although first used to market goods, medicine, cigarettes, soap, and alcohol, but with more money and leisure time, the urban population reached out for intellectual and spiritual experiences. Now better educated, people acquired an appreciation of culture, art and literature. And by 1880 Cheret’s new poster art form was attracting a number of top designers such as Toulouse-Lautrec, Pierre Bonnard, Edourd Vuillard, and Alphonse Mucha. There chosen subject matter featured Parisian nightlife, notably the theatres, music halls and cabarets of the city.

As a result, the growing popularity elevated the status of the poster, to fine art and started a poster craze, As a result, came the Belle Epoque in France, poster exhibitions, magazines, and dealers proliferated; the pioneering Parisian dealer Sagot listed 2200 different posters in his catalogue. And the poster transformed into a collectable and affordable work of art for middle class homes.

This was the golden era of illustration and arguably the beginning of Graphic Design. The large format of posters allowed designers to make a powerful public presentation and illustrator’s names became widely known.

Jules Cheret “The Father of the Poster”

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Jules Cheret, 1890

The elevation and development of poster art has always been closely linked to technical advances in print making, notably lithography. Although the lithographic process was invented by Alois Senefelder as far back as 1798, it had little impact on posters until the advent of chromolithography later in the 19th Century. Even then, it wasn’t until Jules Cheret invented his convenient “three stone lithographic process” in the 1860s allowing lithographers to produce a wide spectrum of colours from just three stones. Meaning that posters would be more affordable to print.


Cheret not only developed a cheaper colour lithographic process, with richer, more expressive colours, he also enhanced the beautiful nature of the poster, and endowed it with graceful designs.


He was awarded the Legion d’honneur by the French Government on 1890 for his outstanding contributions to the Graphic Arts. Although his paintings earned him a certain respect, it was his work creating advertising posters, taken on just to pay his bills but eventually his dedication, for which he is remembered today.

Alphonse Mucha “The Father of Art Nouveau”

was a Czech Art Nouveau painter and decorative artist, most known for his images of women. Bearing multiple influences including the Pre-Raphaelites, The Arts & Crafts Movement and Byzantine art.

He moved to Paris at the age of 27 to continue his studies. It was here, 7 years later, Mucha happened to drop into a print shop where there was a sudden and unexpected need for a new advertising poster for a play featuring Sarah Bernhardt, the most famous actress at the time in Paris, at the Theatre De La Renaissance. Mucha volunteered to produce a lithographed poster and within two weeks the advertisement for the play “Gismonda” appeared on the streets on the city. It was an overnight sensation and as a result, Bernhardt was so impressed with the success that she entered into a 6 year contract with Mucha.

Mucha produced a flurry of paintings, posters, advertisements, and book illustrations as well as designs for jewellery, carpets, wallpaper and theatre sets in what was initially called the “Mucha style” but then became known as Art Nouveau (French for New Art) This style went international and many imitated, however despite this Mucha attempted to distance himself from this throughout his life, he insisted always that, rather than adhering to any fashionable stylistic form, his paintings came purely from Czech art. He believed that art existed only to communicate a spiritual message, and nothing more; the reason for the frustration he gained through commercial art. He returned to Czech to go back to painting.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

Toulouse-lautrec 1
Toulouse-Lautrec, 1891

Was a French painter, printmaker, draftsman, and illustrator. Although friends with Van Gogh and Emile Bernard, Toulouse-Lautrec was influenced by the fluid paintings of Degas, especially his dancers.

In 1881, entrepreneur and artist, Rodolphe Sails opened LeChat Noir night club. The innovation of lithographs made possible publicity posters and Toulouse-Lautrecs lithograph, Moulin Rouge-La Goulue, made him an overnight sensation in Montmartre.

When the Moulin Rouge opened, Toulouse-Lautrec was commissioned to do a series of posters, perhaps some of his most iconic works. His paintings of the singer Yvette Guilbert, La Goulue (The Outrages Dancer), Louise Weber and Jane Avril assured him a reserved front seat at the cabaret, where he revelled in painting the gentlemen in their top hats, slumming it in the audience.

The end of an Era

By 1900, Art Nouveau had lost much of its dynamism through sheer imitation and repetition. The early death of Toulouse-Lautrec in 1901 and the abandonment of poster art by Mucha and Cheret (who both returned to painting) left a void that was filled by a young caricaturist named Leonetto Cappiello, who arrived in Paris in 1898.

Strongly influenced by Cheret and Toulouse-Lautrec, Cappiello rejected the fussy detail of Art Nouveau, instead he focused in creating one simple image and took over as modern advertising.





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