"Your cyber source for artist news and education!"
© 1998, 1999, WetCanvas!

[ Home: Virtual Museum: Masters of the Poster: The History of the Poster ]

The History of The Color Poster


Photo: Lithographers working on a press, circa 1870.

The history of posters can be traced as far back as the 15th century, when artisans handmade each and every sheet. While a painstaking process indeed, it ushered in a new age of providing news, announcements, and other information to passers-by on the streets.

For the most part, news and information was distributed to the populace via the Town Crier. Town criers traversed the streets and would stop at crossroads, announcing the orders and proclamations from the King, the Church or the brotherhoods. They announced everything from burials, goods, convocations, lost objects, and other items.

In 1539, the "poster" began to slowly but surely replace the town criers. Jean-Michel Papillon was one of the first "poster artists" that can be tracked via his signature.

In Paris of 1628, Théophraste Renaudot (a French Protestant physician) created his "Bureau d'adresses". His company listed small advertisements indexing suppliers and buyers of various products. In 1633, after several years of success, he printed loose sleeves reproducing this information under the name of "Sheets of the Bureau d'adresses". This represented the beginnings of the advertising poster.

In 1789, the French revolution caused a virtual explosion in the field of communications. The French began to experience "Freedom of the Press", and all of the newspapers began displaying printed advertisements.

The formidable industrial rise of the 19th century ushered in the beginnings of mechanization, which opened a new area in publishing.

The greatest illustrators of the period, Grandville, Raffet, Johannot, Gavarni, and Gilded partnered with the great writers, Hugo, Sand, Dumas, Rabelais, Balzac.

Höffbauer - 17th century

Early poster by Papillon

Anonymous poster - 1890

Like most print media, graphic arts were dependent on the invention of the printing press. This allowed for the mass production of all shapes and sizes of posters as well. The technique that is used to print posters, is called lithography. This is printing by placing ink on a series of metal or stone ("lithos") carvings which are really reliefs of color regions on the poster.

The art of Lithography was invented by Czech named Alois Senefelder in 1798 in Austria. By 1848, the process had been refined to the point that it was possible to print 10,000 sheers per hour, however, Jules Cheret was the first person to produce posters in mass through lithography.

While Senefelder pioneered the field of lithography, and certainly many "posters" were created prior to the arrival of Cheret, it is Cheret deserves to be called "the father of the poster". First, his contributions to the technical process made rapid color printing in volume possible. Second, he played a major role in the transformation of the aesthetic nature of the poster, giving it an identity and autonomy from all other fields of pictorial art.

Alois Senefelder

Lithograph Factory at the Turn of the Century

Another image of the 19th century Lithograph Factory

In 1866, Cheret returned to Paris to open his own print shop. With the financial assistance provided by Rimmel, this little shop was destined the change the world of art forever. In 1867, Cheret's print shop produced it's first poster. It depicted Sarah Bernardt as Princess Desireé in the comedy La Biche au Bois, for Bal Valentino. The age of the artistic commercial poster was born.


Photo: Lithograph press, circa 1860.

Cheret almost single handedly turned Paris into the "picture gallery of the street." In 1895, Charles Hiatt wrote:

"Paris, without its Chérets, would be without one of its most pronounced characteristics. Chéret’s posters greet one joyously as one passes every hoarding, smile at one from the walls of every cafe, arrest one before the windows of every kiosk."

Cheret lived at 156 Rue St. Denis at Courbevoie, just beyond the bustling city that housed his many posters. It's a good thing, too. He was so popular, that his posters were stolen from the walls of the city almost as soon as they were hung!

Cheret’s theatrical and airy style recalled Tiepolo and Watteau, representing a late but highly visible example of the Rococo Revival in France. His charming maidens became so pervasive that the Parisians nicknamed them "Cherettes."

In 1881, a law was passed which created official "posting places", and an entire industry was created. Every poster required a tax stamp to indicate that a fee had been paid for the right to post it. Based on square footage, the tax led to the adoption of standard sizes. Advertisers worked with artists, printers and posting companies to create, post and maintain the poster on the street.

Jules Cheret would go on to produce over 1,000 posters in his illustrious career. He would inspire and influence such future legends as Pierre Bonnard, Edouard Manet, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Maxfield Parrish, Leonetto Cappiello, and many others to participate in the continuing revolution and evolution of the color poster.

The reign of the poster began to fade after 1900. For most of the artists who had pioneered the field (including Cheret), the poster craze simply represented a stage of development for their talents. Many of the most prominent poster artists moved into other fields of research and work. Such is the case with Jules Cheret who, after producing more than 1000 posters in his illustrious career, turned to painting. In 1906, his absence from the Parisienne poster scene was regretted by many. Parisiennes could often be heard saying "Why are the eyes of passers-by offended by such hideous advertisements? Oh! for the good old days of Cheret's posters!".

In 1928, the French government inaugurated the Chéret Museum in Nice. In 1932, in this same city, Cheret was overcome with blindness, and died. Jules Cheret passed away at the age of 96, leaving a legacy in the world of art rivaled by few. Today his posters, postcards, paintings, and other works of art are some of the most collected items from the period.

Color posters are still created to this day.

Please direct all inquiries, corrections, and submissions to [email protected].