The historical vibrancy of vintage French posters

Jules Chéret: La Diaphane vintage French poster, 1890. Jules Chéret: La Diaphane vintage French poster, 1890. Sold for $4,000 via Poster Auctions International Inc (March 2021).

The concept of a bright, bold, attention-grabbing poster isn’t a difficult one to understand today, but it wasn’t until the city of love approached the 20th century that Jules Chéret illuminated Paris streets with color lithography technique that would redefine the very concept of a poster – and daub cities around the world in vivid splashes of color for decades to come. Chéret, with the likes of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen made collector’s items of vintage French posters for the subsequent century and beyond.

Chéret’s influence on poster design shouldn’t be understated. Before he crossed over into the fine art world in 1900, he created over 1,000 posters in his theatrical, airy style. And in doing so, he brought vibrant reds, yellows and blues to darkened city walls. In fact, the charming maidens that adorned so many of his posters became such a feature of the city that Parisians nicknamed them “Cherettes”.

These posters had such a boom in poster production that they led to a law in 1881, which created official posting places to avoid the city being smothered. The popularity of posters was confirmed three years later, when the first  French group poster exhibition in Paris was organized by Chéret. 

From theatre, to exhibitions, alcohol, oil, perfumes and a bit more alcohol, Chéret’s Cherettes cheerily found their face on a wide variety of products. The content almost didn’t matter, as the poster would get the typical Chéret treatment of bright bursts of color and a magnanimous woman hoping to catch your eye. 

Free-flowing forms in vintage French posters

This was certainly the case for the Olympia music hall in 1893. It’s one of Chéret’s most ebullient and exciting images. The poster bursts with light and joy, as a free-spirited woman is carried away on a wave of delight and music as she plays the cymbals. By contrast, the brand advertising peppermint liquor had a decidedly more intense mood. Darker tones give the poster from 1899 a little bit of an edge, but the bold use of primary and secondary colours, and the gaze of the (once again) free-spirited woman are impossible to ignore. Santé!

This element of extreme contrast, where shade meets the bright, free-flowing form of a bohemian woman in full flow was again explored for a pair of posters for a Loie Fuller show at the Folies Bergère music hall. The Illinois-born American actress and dancer was a pioneer of modern dance and theatrical lighting techniques in France, and despite being constrained by the use of a handful of colors, Cheret managed to perfectly encapsulate the feeling of movement under theatre lights. 

Cheret wasn’t the only famous painter in town though. The inimitable Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec would also pick up a paint brush on behalf of a corporation and with similar success. His poster for the famous Moulin Rouge conveyed the thrill of seeing cabaret, as well as the seeming anonymity of sitting in the dark to watch the provocative show. This has become one of the most celebrated vintage French posters of all time. 

Provocation was certainly something that Toulouse-Lautrec was familiar with and he was happy to lean into this reputation with his 1892 poster, Reine de Joie, for his friend Victor Joze, a Polish writer of cheap erotic novels. The poster is one of the most piquant and popular that the artist produced, offering an exciting glimpse of the book’s contents.

Art Nouveau influence on vintage French posters

As the 1900s approached, the painting style in vogue took on an Art Nouveau influence. Alphonse Mucha, a Czech working in Paris, created one of the masterpieces of Art Nouveau poster design. This was his painting of the diva Sarah Bernhardt for her role in Hamlet. Flowery, ornate and bearing the influence of the Pre-Raphaelites, the Arts and Crafts Movement, and even Byzantine art, the poster is a visual feast. It offers almost as much to absorb as the play. He repeated the feat for Job cigarette rolling papers in 1896. The model’s extravagant and luxuriant hair that’s seemingly intertwined with the cigarette smoke is instantly captivating. This style would dominate Paris for the next decade, but war would change everything. Gone was the innocent exuberance of the posters before, as the brutality of war rendered the dreamy and soft Art Nouveau style irrelevant. In its place were direct and simple illustrations that created some incredibly striking images that didn’t pull any punches. 

Dark colors replaced the light of the fin de siècle to reflect the dark tone of war. The stench of war and death inhabited so many of the posters and nowhere was this more evident than in Marcel Falter’s Emprunt National Societe Generale 1918 poster, depicting a soldier strangling a Nazi eagle. This was clear, distinct and powerful propaganda designed to help the war effort and galvanise opinion. Maurice Neumont’s harrowing poster (translated as They Shall Not Pass) paints a similarly horrific vivid picture of life in the trenches. 

An aggressive perspective


As peace began to settle across Europe, Art Deco swept in as the prominent style. Sometimes perceived as impersonal and menacing, the primary themes of power and speed in posters gained in popularity, while shapes were simplified and streamlined. 

At the forefront of the Deco movement was A.M. Cassandre (the pseudonym of Adolphe Jean-Marie Mouron), who was also known for designing the Yves Saint Laurent logo. His poster for Nord Express proved a particular hit thanks to its aggressive perspective and bold geometry. The speed of the train is captured, while the almost-monotonal mix of blue and grey provide a stark beauty. The same imposing beauty could be said of his poster for transatlantic travel by ship.

Peaceful progress marks the decline of the French poster

After World War II the art of the French poster declined in relevance as radio and television became dominant. This didn’t stop a few stalwarts continuing the Art Deco tradition into the 1980s with typical French flair. There was Bernard Villemot, who created wonderful campaigns for Bally, Air France, Orangina and Perrier

He wasn’t alone either, as Raymond Savignac brought a humorous simplicity to his Art Deco styling in posters as lightness of touch and tone returned to French posters. And, while the poster itself was in decline, the images remained etched into appreciative eyes and can today be found across a wide variety of souvenirs in any Paris newsagent. If you’re lucky though, you might even find one at auction.  

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