Vintage – it’s a word we usually associate with the world of winemaking. Just as vintage wine refers to the grapes harvested from a specific year, so too do vintage posters hail back to long-lost times. Vintage posters evoke the sense of our forgotten past with images that we can clearly associate with certain eras.
Vintage poster art is a hugely popular art style, yet few people understand just quite what it is. We are all familiar with the general look: swishing skirts, elegant but thirsty femmes fatales, and large, bright brand names. Vintage posters have classy and stylistic images with advertorial content that summons nostalgia in all of us today.
But vintage art is far more than that. Vintage posters represent a shift in marketing attitudes and in social trends of the times in which they were made. When vintage posters were popularized, they plastered the walls of European cities, were sold to the public and changed the way we view advertising today. Vintage art is a surprisingly important piece in the history of art.
Vintage Art: An Overview
Born in Paris, vintage art is generally commercial artwork created from the late 1800s until the mid 1900s. It is, in essence, print advertising made possible with the advent of mass printing, thanks to the lithography technique.
Parisian artist Jules Cheret, dubbed “The Father of the Poster”, perfected the art of colour lithography, a technique that allowed printers to print ink flatly onto paper, rather than with raised edges as happened before. This facilitated the quick and cheap production of images with good quality colour and texture. Cheret himself designed over 1,000 posters during his working life.
The posters, which often featured what were at the time risqué subjects such as women chugging alcohol, spoke to a large audience that in turn led to increasing popularity. By the 1890s, cities across Europe – and eventually also in the United States – were plastered with attractive posters.
Common subjects for vintage poster art were body soaps, coffees, detergents, sporting events, night venues, plus alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages. Pears Soap, Campari, the Moulin Rouge, and Coca-Cola are among the brands whose advertising became almost synonymous with the vintage poster movement.
So popular were vintage posters that the originals quickly became highly collectible forms of art. There were poster shows and exhibitions attended by thousands. Poster-collecting clubs, societies and publications were founded. Between 1895 and 1900, Jules Cheret directed the Maîtres de l’Affiches series of portfolios featuring four posters apiece. These miniature masterworks were issued monthly for roughly two and a half francs per issue.
Today, vintage artworks can be found in the Louvre in Paris, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. Some of Henri Toulouse-Lautrec’s posters sold recently for over $200,000.
Vintage Poster Artists
The most celebrated vintage poster artists are commonly French and Swiss, not surprising given that vintage poster art arose in France. Swiss Theophile-Alexandre Steinlen, who created the renowned Chat Noir poster, was one such artist. He was joined by Georges de Feure, Pierre Bonnard, Adolphe Willette, Jean-Louis Forain, and the famous Henri Toulouse-Lautrec.
Another artist, Italian Leonetto Cappiello, simplified his poster designs using bold colours commonly with black backgrounds. His style was so influential he became known as the "Father of Modern Advertising".
Vintage art influenced a number of other styles. Art Nouveau, made popular by Alphonse Mucha, considered "The Father of Art Nouveau", and Eugene Grasset, were two such spin-offs. Later, Art Deco was established with a sleeker, more linear finish to its images. A.M. Cassandre’s futuristic images led the movement.
There is more to vintage art than you may at first be aware. It has been so influential that the ripples of the earlier movement can still be seen in modern advertising today.
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