Jules Chéret: how the poster turned into an art form

The Art Syndicate Staff Writer: Constanza Ontiveros Valdés


Nowadays, posters are widely collected and can be found in the most important museums worldwide. However, that was not always the case. It all began in the mid-1800s, when the poster started to be valued as an art form. Jules Chéret, a talented French designer and artist that revolutionized the lithographic process, is recognized as one of the masterminds behind this shift of perception. Let’s look at how Chéret influenced the history of the modern poster.


Born in 1836 in Paris, Chéret got involved in the poster business at an early age and began an apprenticeship with a lithographer at age 13 continuing his education with a brief stay at the Ëcole Nationale de Dessin. After having worked at some lithography firms, such as Lemercier, and having created opera posters, book jackets, and perfume packaging, young Chéret decided to move to London. While in England, he met Eugene Rimmel, an expatriate perfume manufacturer and member of the Royal Society of the Arts, who was instrumental to the launching of his career both with his ideas and his deep pockets financing Chéret´s extremely successful printing business established in Paris (1866) with modern presses shipped directly from London.


But, how exactly did Chéret turn the poster into a fashionable and desirable item? First of all, he was one of the first artists to create unified designs that integrated images full of movement and vibrant colors with brief texts presented with innovative and original typographies. For his intricate designs, Chéret sought inspiration in the works by landscape painters, such as Gericault or Turner, and on the frivolity depicted in the paintings by Rococo artists like Fragonard and Watteau, something not commonly seen in other poster designers of his time. All these design innovations were achieved by large-scale color printing which had eluded artists for decades until Chéret made a breakthrough with a three-stone process and relatively transparent inks.


As time went by, Chéret developed a distinctive and popular style linked with Art Nouveau. Among their many features, his posters frequently included sensual performing women known as “Chérretes,” who, to some, represent the emergence of female freedom within France. At the same time, Chéret saw that it was possible to elevate poster making from a decorative object to an art form. Now, Chéret was not alone in his quest to value decorative and folk arts. During the last years of the 19th century, important French thinkers, such as Champfleury or Baudelaire, advocated considering decorative arts as equals to other traditional fine arts like painting or sculpture.


Resulting from all this buzz, by the 1880s and until his death, in 1933, Chéret was widely renowned within France and elsewhere and was the subject of exhibitions and reviews. To get a glimpse of his success, his work had become so popular that he was able to transfer the responsibility of his shop to Chaix & Company, a large-scale printing company, and his posters were specially commissioned and even stolen from the streets to be collected.  Likewise, in 1890, the French government named him a chevalier of the Legion of Honor for his success as “the creator of an art industry.”


On the other hand, following Chéret´s footsteps, important artists of his time, like Monet, Degas, Rodin, and Toulouse Lautrec, got interested in lithography. Chéret was also behind the creation of Maîtres de l’Affiche (1895-1900), a collection of poster reproductions from 97 artists, that to this date continues to be popular and provides an overview of the finest achievements of poster art from the Belle Époque.


All in all, Chéret presented himself as a gentleman and well-cultured artist and consciously built a discourse around poster making. As proof of this, next to his vast and extremely popular production of poster designs (more than 1000!) Chéret also painted many pastels and murals, and got involved in other decorative arts. Without a doubt, Chéret planted the seeds for the future blossoming of the poster as a work of art.

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