Jules Chéret: King of Belle Epoque Poster Art

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Jules Chéret: King of Belle Epoque Poster Art
Before Toulouse-Lautrec there was Jules Chéret. A talented lithographer, he was a master of Belle Epoque poster art, changing the very essence of the medium. Artists Toulouse-Lautrec and Alphonse Mucha are more well known today, but they owed an immense debt to Chéret’s inventions. (Acknowledging Chéret’s influence, Toulouse-Lautrec sent every poster to him first before anyone else saw it.) Originally known as broadsides in the 1600s, printed simply in black and white on one side, the posters were a quick and effective way to mass-distribute information. Shopkeepers used them to advertise their products in windows, governments used them to call men to arms, and who can forget the “Wanted Dead Or Alive” posters in the Wild West? Public information such as the “Declaration of Independence,” printed on July 4th, 1776, was pasted on walls throughout the American colonies. These posters were cheap to produce, served their purpose, and were then pasted over or thrown away. But technology moved inexorably onwards, typefaces became a little more eye catching, and decorative images were sometimes added to grab the viewer’s attention. But it was the reinvention of lithography that changed everything— lithography that turned posters into fine art. And Jules Chéret was the artist responsible for this seismic change in how posters were perceived. Jules Chéret – Fêtes de Nice 1907 Poster. Jean-Pierre Dalbéra, Wikimedia Commons Art and innovation Lithography had been invented in 1798 by Alois Senefelder, a Bavarian playwright and actor, to reproduce his scripts. Lithographs are prints made from inked and greased drawings on a stone surface. A separate stone was required for each color, a laborious task, especially when the stones used were large and extremely heavy. The stones were then pressed with force onto the paper. To add color — a chromolithograph — was so time-consuming, that lithographs remained pretty much black and white, with perhaps the odd splash of color, well into the 1860s. Chéret worked out a method using only three stones. One inked in red, one in black and one shaded orange-red to blue-green. By making these colors semi-transparent, they could be layered to create different shades. Not content with the endless possibilities of layering colors, Chéret utilized the limestone with an artist’s eye, using animated brush lines, stipple, cross hatch and soft water color-like washes. He designed his own lettering, so that the text across a drawing became part of the overall design. Lithographs had never been beautiful before and the effects were astonishing. Chéret’s creativity and ingenuity transformed the world of advertising overnight, and turned lithography into a recognized, respectable, sophisticated and saleable art form. Alois Senefelder (1771–1834), inventor of lithography. Public Domain Chéret was born in Paris in 1836 into a family of poor, but creative artisans. His education was limited, and at 13 years of age, he began a three-year apprenticeship with a lithographer. He was already interested in painting, immersing himself in the Paris art galleries while studying at the École Nationale de Dessin. He moved to London in 1859 to study lithography and stayed there for seven years before returning to Paris in 1866, his head bursting with new ideas which came into fruition in the late 1860s. Eugène Rimmel, a businessman and perfume manufacturer, hired Chéret as a designer. But Chéret was so convinced of the future of his method of lithography, that he started his own firm in Paris — alongside two brothers, Léon and Alfred Choubrac. The lithographs weren’t just groundbreaking, they were also cheaper to produce thanks to new technical methods. By 1877, Chéret was running a large workshop with steam-powered lithograph presses which allowed him to supply the high demand from both collectors and businesses for their advertising.

Lead photo credit : Jules Chéret (1836 - 1932), French Poster Maker. Public Domain

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After some dreary years in the Civil Service, Marilyn realized her dream of living in Paris. She arrived in Paris in December 1967 and left in July 1969. From there she lived in Mallorca, London, Oman, and Dubai, where she moved with her husband and young son and worked for Gulf News, Khaleej Times and freelanced for Emirates Woman magazine. During this time she was also a ground stewardess for Middle East Airlines. For the past 18 years they've lived on the Isle of Wight.


  • Robert Shirrell
    2022-09-15 10:33:38
    Robert Shirrell
    I enjoyed your informative article. There is currently a delightful show of 109 of the posters of Chéret at the Milwaukee Art Museum, which received a donation of a collection of some 600 Chéret posters from a couple who had begun collecting in the 1980s. The show runs until October 16. You might add a note for those who might be interested in seeing it. A link is below to the exhibition -- https://mam.org/exhibitions/details/always-new.php


    • Marilyn Brouwer
      2022-09-17 07:22:06
      Marilyn Brouwer
      Thank you so much Robert for the information and how lucky to be in Milwaukee and have the opportunity to see this exhibition. How fabulous that this couple collected so many of his posters. Great taste! Thank you again for commenting.