History of illustration

Swan Song: French Advertising Art of the ’40s and ’50s


After the ravages of the Second World War, France began an economic boom that was to last thirty years. The period was one of high productivity, high average wages and high consumption. Between 1950 and 1975 the real purchasing power of the average French worker’s salary rose by 170%. The nation could soon boast one of the world’s highest standards of living. At this time France was also experiencing a phenomenal baby boom.

It is not by accident, then, that the advertising images of this period are filled with optimism and gaiety. The glories of this art form were not to last, however. The 1940s and 1950s can be considered the swan song of advertising illustration, before the ascendancy of photography beginning in the 1960s and, later, the rise of computer-generated imagery. The most well-known commercial artists of this period were René Gruau, Bernard Villemot and Raymond Savignac.

Gruau’s best known work was for the couturier Christian Dior, for whom he became artistic director of advertising in 1957. His work helped the fashion industry regain lost ground after the Second World War. It helped to make Paris the fashion capital of the globe. His work is characterised by a broad, flowing brushstroke, striking use of block colour, the creation of motifs on a ground of flat tone. He took inspiration from Japanese woodblock prints and the fin de siecle work of Toulouse-Lautrec.

Fabric shortages during the war years and after accustomed women to skirts and dresses that freed the legs. The new designs from Dior were much more extravagant, using immense folds of fabric and creating dresses which fanned out from the waist quite dramatically. For this reason it was dubbed the ‘New Look’ by an American journalist for Harper’s Bazaar and the name stuck. This was a new look for a new Paris and a new France, just three years after Liberation.

During the war consumption had to be strictly controlled and signs of profligacy were seen as a betrayal of the common struggle. These attitudes endured for some years after the war, as evidenced by an incident in 1947 when street vendors attacked Dior models out for a photo shoot, protesting the extravagance of their clothing. Protest died down as the orbit of prosperity expanded in the coming years and decades and popular consumption rose to new heights. The sartorial shortages and restrictions of the war years restricted clothing to dull military and civilian uniforms. Dior’s first line was thus a breath of fresh air in a France that had been choked by austerity. Women’s dress was revolutionised. A cultural shift began as French women reclaimed the feminine styles which had been unattainable in the preceding years. Many of the illustrations culled from magazines and periodicals of the 1940s and 1950s on Vintage Advertising Art are a testament to this renaissance in elegance.

Dior’s dresses, with their tiny waists, majestic busts and full skirts swelling out from small bodices strongly recalled the styles of the Belle Époque. How appropriate, then, that René Gruau’s art should be inspired by the master of poster art in that era, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. There was thus a combination of optimism for the past and nostalgia in Gruau and Dior’s work, symbolised brilliantly by a 1947 illustration by Gruau for the Miss Dior perfume which depicts a swan wearing a black bow and a pearl necklace. The swan symbolised novelty, as well as harking back to the 18th century France which so captivated Dior.
Bernard Villemot was another star of post-war advertising art. His work was recognisable by his use of simple, elegant lines and bold colours. Having studied under the Art Deco master Paul Colin, who many have inspired his interest in the seductive female form, he produced work for Orangina, Bally, Air France and Perrier. He’s best known, however, for his range of Orangina ads which helped to make the brand famous; he created their signature orange swirl.

Raymond Savignac (whose work was exhibited alongside Villemot’s in 1949 at the Gallery of Beaux Arts in Paris ) was loved for his characteristically humorous, cartoon-like advertisements. In his time many considered him the greatest poster artist in the world. By his own record he “was born at the age of 41 from the udder of the Monsavon cow”: the work which launched his career was his illustration for Monsavon Au Lait soap featuring a cow in a bathtub. As well as being a fan of Charlie Chaplin, he was inspired by American comedy films and often employed animal imagery in his posters.

Thus, from the comic ingenuity of Raymond Savignac to the elegance of René Gruau, these two decades were a swan song in commercial illustration.

We want to preserve that wondrous heritage for posterity. To that end, customers from all around the world can purchase an authentic piece of French history from Vintage Advertising Art. The framed pictures we stock are subjects for meditation on days gone by. Through viewing the work, we hope to transport customers to a unique historical period: the swan song of French advertising art.