The Belle Époque and the Culture of Parisian Advertising Art


A Parisian Cafe by Ilya Repin, 1875

By Faith Duval –

The commercial art of the 1940s and 1950s, to which Vintage Advertising Art is dedicated, represents the swansong of the grand tradition of French advertising art. That tradition can be traced back to the poster art of late nineteenth century Paris. Paris at this time was going through the Belle Époque, the so-called ‘beautiful era’, a long period of peacetime prosperity spanning the 1870s to the First World War. It has come to be seen as a time of enjoyment and innocence, predating the horrors of world war and the economic convulsions to come.

Among the pioneers of the late-century poster mania were Jules Chéret, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Alphonse Mucha. Chéret’s invention of the colour lithography technique in the mid-1860s was instrumental in turning the boulevards of Paris into virtual art galleries, where passers-by delighted in seeing this new, colourful form of modern art displayed. The posters’ subjects included the exciting night-life of Paris, its cabarets and theatres, and the newly flourishing luxury goods market – its fashion and fragrance available in the new department stores springing up over the city, consequences of the heady boomtime.
These path-breaking poster artists were influenced by a myriad of sources, including Japanese ukiyo-e, the woodblock prints which depicted its own world of luxury consumption and entertainment enjoyed by the merchant class. From this source comes the absence of shading, the use of block colours and thick black outlines characteristic of many Belle Époque posters. Japan had opened its doors to the West in the 1850s for the first time in centuries, and despite its unmistakeably Parisian character, poster art as much as any other cultural phenomena of the time reflected an increase in world cultural exchange owing to a period of expanding global trade and transportation.


Quinquina Dubonnet, Apéritif, Dans tous les Cafés by Jules Chéret, 1895

Belle Époque Paris could boast a vast cultural wealth – the impressionist composers, Debussy, Satie and Saint-Saens lived and worked there along with the painters Picasso and Matisse; Stravinsky first achieved international renown with his ballet scores performed in Paris; the novelists Victor Hugo, Emile Zola and Marcel Proust all developed their radical visions of industrial modernity within its perimeter. Its brasseries, cabarets and cafes were beloved by tourists and sophisticated locals alike. Paris at that time was called ‘Ville Lumière’, the city of light, famed for the rows of gaslights that shone along its grands boulevards, and then for the pioneering electric lights which came into use in the 1870s. It was also, incidentally, home to the first neon advertising, displayed in 1912. During that era Paris hosted three universal expositions; in 1878, 1889 and 1900 – huge events celebrating the art, fashion, commerce and technology of the city.
Amidst this cultural fecundity, Chéret’s colourful art posters elevated the advertising poster to a work of art. Initially regarded as monstrosities by critics, the efforts of Chéret, Toulouse-Lautrec and others turned the commercial poster into a genuine art form, celebrated by writers and featured in exhibitions and books. In 1896 Chéret capitalised on the mania for posters by bringing out a monthly collection of the finest art posters printed in miniature form for private, home viewing by subscribers. It was the connoisseurs, the collectors and entrepreneurs who preserved the poster tradition.


Lance Parfum Rodo by Alphonse Mucha, 1896

There are notable parallels between Belle Époque Paris and post-war Paris, where a revival of fashion, luxury consumer culture and advertising art came together as a beacon to the world: peace and newfound economic prosperity, with an attendant cultural optimism, were hallmarks of this era. Without the collectors, critics and dealers of old, the posters of the Belle Époque might have fallen into obscurity. The same is true of the commercial art that followed in the 1940s and 1950s advertisements for fashion and luxury goods. We hope that our work at Vintage Advertising Art helps to preserve and protect that cultural tradition for the future.


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