Postermania: Advertising, Domesticated

Alphonse Mucha, Gismonda (1894-1895), lithograph in five colors on two sheets, 213 x 75 cm. Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

On 1 January 1895, when Alphonse Mucha’s poster depicting Sarah Bernhardt in the title role of Gismonda appeared for the first time on the hoardings of Paris, it caused a sensation. The strange name of this mysterious artist was suddenly on everyone’s lips, and eager collectors snatched Gismonda off the walls.1 The craze for collecting poster advertisements had started some years earlier with the development of increasingly artistic designs by artists such as Jules Chéret, Pierre Bonnard and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Although this postermania would only last about a decade (1890–1900), it altered the way color lithographic posters were designed, produced and perceived, with ramifications into the present day.

Beginning in the late 1860s, the commercial poster went through a number of changes that made it more attractive to the collector. The first was a shift from primarily text-based advertisements printed by letterpress to illustrated ones printed by lithography that emphasized an image, integrating pictorial and verbal content into a single cohesive design. Jules Chéret, who effectively invented the illustrated poster in France, pioneered this approach in his 1866 advertisement for Jacques Offenbach’s operetta Orphée aux enfers. The text is sequestered in the upper center and lower center margins, and gives only the essential information: the title of the operetta and the theater where it is being performed. This was a drastic departure from previous printed advertising, which usually consisted of decorative headings, multiple paragraphs of text, and a small monochrome image like that seen in L’Aérienne, a 1866 poster for an exhibition of Camille Dupuy’s new navigational balloon, printed by Lithographie Lesurques. The poster had become a less informational, but more aesthetic object.

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  1. Jiří Mucha, Alphonse Mucha: His Life and Art by His Son, translated from the Czech by William Heinmann (London: Heinmann, 1966), 131. []