At the turn of the century, Parisian magazine subscribers were treated to colourful advertising posters which were included in the monthly issues. Each magazine contained four small 11 x 15 inch posters. For 60 months, subscribers also received a monthly original lithograph by one of 90 French or foreign artists, numbered and imprinted with the mark of Atelier Chaix, the magazine publisher.
Subscribers paid nothing for these prints, other than the price of the magazine. Today, though, if you want to purchase one of these posters, you are looking at a price of several hundred dollars apiece – more for the works of the more famous artists.
An important catalogue of 256 of these prints, Les Maîtres de l’Affiche, offers a representative selection of art of la Belle Epoque.
Published in Paris, this collection reflects the well-deserved pride of the French at having invented the artistic commercial poster. Jules Chéret, the artist-director of the printing house, was the father of this artistic genre. For his role in launching the golden age of the poster, he was awarded Légion d’Honneur.
He believed that advertising design at the time was vulgar and lacked redeeming artistic features. Chéret was the first to associate a woman with a product; for example, beverages such as Dubonnet, various pastilles and soaps, music halls such as les Folies Bergère.
His salon artists covered the buildings and walls of Paris with images of beautiful women, turning the city into a plein-air museum.
It was not only the French who collected these posters; it is estimated that 6,000 American subscribers also had a collection. Major museums such as the Metropolitan and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Louvre in Paris, and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, also acquired these works for their permanent collections.
One of the best-known Maîtres de l’Affiche was Alphonse Mucha. His images were appropriated during the 1960s for theatre posters, and they often featured actress Sarah Bernhardt. Another well-known contributor was Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, whose art celebrated the Parisian cabaret and the bohemian life in Montmartre.
The complete set of 256 prints illustrated in Les Maîtres de l’Affiche or its English-language counterpart, Masters of the Poster, provide an enticing glimpse into the bohemian life of la Belle Epoque.