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Posters of the Belle Epoque

Report of the lecture given by
Charles Harris BSc
on May 25th 2011

The evening ended with a question from a member, "How come we haven't heard much of Cheret before?" Many of us were having the same thought. Charles, who has been involved in Global Advertising for many years and has a "passion with posters", had described Cheret as putting the "Belle" into the "Belle Epoque." At 13 Jules Cheret, born in Paris to a family of poor but creative artisans, was apprenticed to a lithographer and whilst there he was galvanised into becoming an artiste rather than an artisan. He was to become "the father of the modern poster."

Eugene Rimmel provided him with finance to open his own studio and the construction of Haussmann's Paris Boulevards created a cafe society and therefore a target market of clients who could afford to buy and visit, so Cheret's posters became the mass tool of communication. The image of Fragonard's "Lady on the Swing", with its spirit of exuberance, had made a real impact on him and in order to influence the customer to stop and look and not walk on by he used the ideas of attitude, visual seduction, sexual allure and girl power to great effect in his posters. Combining these with use of his favourite colours of yellow and blue his Cycles Humber poster displays instant communication, with his hallmarks of the joyous and lively movement of the girl on the cycle and lightness of touch in the design.

Amongst many examples of his work "Vin Mariani", an advertisement for French Tonic Wine, was a particular favourite of ours. We felt that it used a combination of all of the techniques that we have already mentioned, combined with an example of his clever use of integrating the writing with the figure. Perhaps our pleasure in this piece was further enhanced when Charles amused us by suggesting that maybe the joy on the face of the "Cherette" was due to the fact that cocaine was present in the product until 1910!

In the common setting of the "Moulin Rouge" nightclub a more familiar figure now appears in the story. Toulouse-Lautrec greatly admired the work of Cheret. Different approaches were employed in their posters advertising the Parisian attraction. Both seemed equally effective in their intention of luring you to partake of the delights of that particular establishment.

Lautrec's "Confetti" was shown at the first serious poster exhibition in London in 1894 and there was a realisation that something "Nouveau" was just around the corner. In Paris Alphonse Mucha fulfilled a sudden and unexpected need for a new advertising poster for a play featuring Sarah Bernhardt. "Gismonda" was posted in the city and the long thin shape of her figure, with Bernhardt's name depicted in a halo, attracted much attention. This was to become his distinctive style and we much admired his clever use of this halo effect in "Bieres" where fruit around the girl's head must surely indicate that it was a good wholesome product to consume.

Charles took us on a quick dash through some more familiar posters such as "Bubbles" the Millais advertisement which indicates trust in the use of Pears Soap and the clever use of language as displayed in the "Bovril" picture of the Bull's Head with the text "Alas my poor Brother."

As with so many others Theophile Steinlen used the science of the block to great effect and his posters emphasised strong family values. If you had to take your dog to the vet surely you would trust the one whose advertisement showed such great eye contact between the girl and her dog. Steinlen's introduction to the artistic crowd at "Le Chat Noir" led to his commissions to do poster art for the cabaret owner.

Of the many lithographers whose work we had admired through the course of the lecture Charles summarised the work of Cheret as Spring, Lautrec's as Summer, Steinlen's as Autumn and Mucha's as Winter but his description of how they had depicted their women seemed to us to more clearly define their individual styles. Mucha placed his women on a pedestal, Steinlen's were liberated, Lautrec was non judgemental in his depiction and Cheret's were starlets.

With our knowledge now enhanced, we thank Charles that we can now imagine how it would feel to float, with Cheret's butterflies, out of his studio window and see how the Boulevards were transformed into the art galleries of the street by the wonderful poster makers of the "Belle Epoque."

Marian and Barrie Heathcote