Celebration and Censure: The Aperitif and the Art of the Poster in Belle Époque France

Fig. 1. Vermouth Lassagne (ca. 1860–1870), lithograph, 63 x 80 cm. Bibliothèque nationale de France.

War, regime change and protest movements fueled widespread social tumult in France during the Belle Époque, and drink culture was no impartial bystander to this national turmoil. Alcohol production and drinking preferences and practices evolved as rapidly as the socio-political landscape, and debates about alcohol consumption became a kind of cipher for concerns about social standing, patriotism and the health of mind and body. Visual culture played an important role in the various conversations surrounding alcohol and alcoholism. The rise of the poster as art form coincided with the proliferation of aperitif beverages, marketed widely through lithographic advertising, and with the attendant condemnation of these drinks by physicians, temperance groups and winegrowers—all of whom relied on posters to reach their targeted audiences.

The illustrated poster of the late 19th century lived at a busy crossroads where art and popular culture, the highbrow and the low, advertising and aesthetics converged. (9See Ruth Iskin, The Poster: Art, Advertising, Design, and Collecting, 1860s–1900s (Hanover: Dartmouth College Press, 2015).)) In this essay I will map the place where café-lined side streets intersected with these crossroads, and the culture of drink met the variegated art of suggestion. Aperitif culture and the advertising poster both arose in France at the turbulent moment of the early Third Republic. New drinks and places to imbibe, innovative means of alcohol production, emerging markets and rising levels of consumption, shifting responses to the reality and the symbolism of bottled alcohol: all this crossed the already busy intersection where the art poster first saw the light of day.

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