A short history of posters

Lithography and the Birth of the Advertising poster

Until the year 1860, posters were simple bills with texts made from woodcuts or engravings.
In France, at the beginning of 1870, the use of color lithography and the printing of larger posters was accelerated by industrial and commercial development.

Jules Chéret “The Father of the Poster” (French painter and lithographer 1836-1932)

Son of a typographer, Jules Chéret quickly learned the typography technique and made his first poster in 1858 for the Operette “Orphée aux enfers” by Offenbach. This first poster created a sensation. In 1896, he opened his own lithography studio in which he invented trichromatic printing using only 2 stones. He drew his subjects in a romantic style, using vivid colours (red, blue and yellow) with a brilliant use of the white paper background.
His most celebrated posters show elegant and enticing young women (the Chérettes) who preposed numerous products such as cars or exhibitions, even shows at the Moulin Rouge and nights out at the “Bal de l’Opéra” or at the “Palais de Glaces”. Chéret created and printed more than 1000 posters, he was the first professional in poster advertising. He was called the “father of the poster”.

His posters are considered today as masterpieces. They are exhibited in numerous museums, and are highly prized by collectors. They can reach thousands of $ for the best ones.

La Belle Epoque 1870-1914

Many artists like Choubrac or Pal were inspired by J. Chéret and produced thousands of posters that would cover the walls of Paris and elsewhere in France. 'La belle époque' was the golden age of the poster. Poster production became more organized. Large print workshops were born and were the first to use standard formats. The first collectors built collections which have mostly been sold off and so these posters are difficult to find today. The gallery Sagot in Paris began the poster business, selling an original poster for 3 francs, or 6 to 12 francs for a luxury Alphonse Mucha poster that was litho printed on silk using gold pigments.
The advertisement poster invaded Europe. In Belgium, Germany, Italy and Great Britain, different styles developed according to the cultural sensibility of the population. Large exhibitions of hundreds of posters from each country were set up in capital cities at the end of the century, notably during the Universal expositions. All of these posters are highly valued by museums, collectors or anyone with an interest in original art works of the highest quality but which are still affordable.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, the absolute Master (1864-1901)

His first poster for the Moulin Rouge in 1892, showing ‘La Goulue’ dances the French cancan, was admired by the Parisian public, Jules Chéret especially. Toulouse-Lautrec became an over-night sensation. In this first poster he broke most of the existing aesthetic rules. He liberated structure, composition, use of light and even typography by repeating ‘Moulin Rouge’ 3 times and using only one ‘M’. The silhouetted figure of Johnny “le désossé” (the contortionist), suggests a magic lantern and the beginnings of the cinema.
His 30 posters, all totally avant-garde and immediately recognizable, are the absolute reference for graphic designers all over the world. His genius will always be unique, and his posters will never be equaled.

Symbolism and the Nabis

At the end of the century, many symbolists such as, Georges de Feure, James Ensor, Gustav-Adolf Mossa, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, Arnold Böcklin or Felicien Rops created magnificent posters for their exhibitions at the “Salon des Cent”; Not forgetting the Swiss Artists Eugène Grasset and Théophile Alexandre Steinlen who all became famous in Paris. This was the epoque of the Moulin Rouge, the rise of Monmartre, of Aristide Bruant and the “Cabaret du Chat Noir”. The “Nabis" Pierre Bonnard, Edouard Vuillard, Henri-Gabriel Ibels and Felix Valloton also produced some masterpieces. These posters made the transition with Art Nouveau and are presented in collections around the world.

Art Nouveau 1895-1905 (Jugenstil in Germany) (style Liberty in Italy)

Art Nouveau was the epitome of the “Belle Epoque”. It influenced all the decorative arts, from illustration to architecture by way of the poster, wallpaper, glasswork and jewellery. Taking its inspiration from nature and the feminine, the artists of this movement created motifs from rounded forms, in a profusion of detail, ornamentation, allegory and symbol. It was the Kingdom of the curve. This was an all-embracing art which occupied all available space in an explosion of ornamentation around the central subject, which in general was a woman. The portfolio “Documents décoratifs” created in 1902 by Alphonse Mucha, presented in 72 plates all the possibilities of ART Nouveau and is considered as the manifesto of this movement.

Alphonse Mucha (1860-1939)

Alphonse Mucha is without doubt the Master of Art Nouveau. His posters idealized opulent women with long flowing hair, usually surrounded by flowers, allegories and symbolic motifs. The monumental image is often surrounded by several colored frames with golden motifs.
In 1894 his first poster for “Sarah Bernhart” in the role of “Gismonda” assured him immediate success. Up until 1905 he created hundreds of lithographs and sumptuous posters, each as beautiful as the next, with the help of the printer Champenois in Paris. This printer was at the summit of his art and completely mastered the difficult printing in gold (Job, Salon des Cent, The Four Seasons). These Art Nouveau masterpieces were already highly prized in their time. The first poster collectors could buy them in Parisian bookshops for few francs. Now they sell for thousands of $.


In Germany at the end of the 19th century, in rupture with the overall conformity inspired by the Baroque, several artists such as Franz Van Stück or Arnold Böcklin regrouped around the “Jugend” and “Pan” reviews and became inspired by the French Art Nouveau and by Symbolism.
The “Jugend” review gave its name to the “Jugendstil” movement, a form of Art Nouveau in Germany.

Called “Liberty” in Italy, “Nieuve Kunst” in Holland or “Tiffany” in the USA, Art Nouveau spread in the Occident. Privat-Livemont in Belgium, Adolfo Hohenstein in Italy are the most well know of these poster artists. Certain of the Secession artists like Gustav Klimt in Austria or Franz Van Stück in Munich were also influenced by Art Nouveau. Numerous artists such as George De Feure, Paul Berthon, William H. Bradley in the USA, also made some remarkable additions to this movement which thought of itself as the absolute final say, in the representation of beauty.

Women and the Belle Epoque

The figure of the woman is everywhere in the Belle Epoque. Each artist had his own way of interpreting her: ‘Chérettes’ are enticing and frivolous, the women of Toulouse-Lautrec are manipulative and those of Grasset dreamy and romantic. Steinlein showed their maternal and human side, while Hohenstein their flamboyant charm. Alphonse Mucha glorified them as symbols of beauty and sensuality. De Feure preferred them bourgeois, proud and independent.
Make your choice and enjoy!

The War 1914-1918

The beginning of the World War marked the end of Art Nouveau and the Belle Epoque. Mobilization and austerity was of the hour. In France, as in the USA or in Germany, many posters were made for the war effort to collect funds for the wounded. These posters are often printed in just one or two colors on bad quality paper. They are witnesses to the history of the 20th century and are highly collectable museum pieces. Most surprisingly are still valued at less than 1’000 francs.

Travel posters

Largely due to the development of the transport system in the 19th century, a huge growth in the tourist industry occurred in the Alps and in all European touristic regions. From 1890, railway companies, tourist locations and several hotels began printing the first genuine travel posters, featuring cog-railways or idyllic scenery, depicted in a romantic style. These lithographs are harmonious compositions bringing together scenic views of the region. They include illustrations of characters from folklore and a time-table or geographical map, usually linked together with golden frames and floral patterns.

Swiss Travel Posters

In 1908, inspired by the visually powerful work of Ferdinand Hodler, the painter Emil Cardinaux designed an avant-garde poster for Zermatt. Drawn in a style, rather daring for its time, it is a monument to the beauty of the Matterhorn, blazing with color and overhanging a valley cast in shadow. The image is reduced to its most essential form of expression and no excess detail is allowed to interfere with the aesthetic value of the subtle play of color, enhanced by the lithographic printing process. Cardinaux's revolutionary poster freed the tourist poster from any realistic constraints and created a more dynamic graphic language. This poster would later influence numerous Swiss artists for decades.

Art Deco travel

During the nineteen twenties and thirties, the specialized curved line used by the Romantic and Art Nouveau movements was replaced by a new form of graphic design, essentially based on the use of the straight line. Originating from the formal accomplishments of Cubism and Futurism (geometric forms, dynamism, structure and contrasting colors), graphic artists created posters of rare intellectual purity using vivid colors and highly stylized forms. This is the Art Deco period.
The best known travel poster artist is the Frenchman, Roger Broders with his gorgeous travel posters in his ‘Art Deco Chic’ style. All over Europe many other designers also produced beautiful Art deco scenery.
The Cubist style of the period can be seen in many posters advertising air travel or transatlantic trips, such as the poster for the ship “Normandie” in 1935 by A.M Cassandre.


From around 1920, photography began to replace drawing methods in some Swiss travel posters. These photographic posters were composed either of only one photograph or of a photo-montage (Herbert Matter, Walter Herdeg).

Travel in the fifties

If formerly, posters advertised the material and functional aspects of tourism (better transport, etc.), the year 1945 saw the appeal of more leisurely pursuits, concentrating on the benefits of Sport, health and relaxation. In post-war years such themes answered the need for a changed outlook on life.
Lithography, which required several weeks work to print a poster design, was superseded during the 1950s by the much more profitable and speedy process of the offset.
Today, all of those travel posters are in great demand, both as historical and iconographical documents of a certain region, and as original works of art that are ideal for the decoration of an office, chalet or in the home.

The new century

Leonetto Cappiello "The Father of modern advertising" (Livorno 1875 - Cannes 1942)
Leonetto Cappiello made his name during the poster boom period in the early 20th century. He lifted the poster from the street to the level of fine Art. He collaborated in the journal “Frou-Frou”, for which he created his first poster in 1901.
In 1903 he designed his poster for ‘Chocolat Klaus’. Over a black background, a woman dressed in green rides a red horse. The text ‘Chocolat Klaus’ stands out in bright yellow. The impact of this poster was immediate – clients asked for the chocolates ‘with the red horse’. This was the beginning of modern publicity and the understanding of how it worked.
By transgressing the artistic traditions of the Belle époque, he liberated the poster from its constraints and announced the arrival of a totally new direction that would transform graphic art during the 20th century.
Cappiello’s method was based on visual surprise: the poster’s image visually leaps out and easily attracts the attention of passers-by. He used characters, animals, clowns or masqued faces contrasted in a colorful or black background to sell many products. Often the chosen figure was not related with the product. His style was to use a strong starting concept, together with dominant lines, curves and intense colors.
From 1901 to 1939, Cappiello produced nearly 550 posters for French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and Swiss companies, which have become mythical in poster history.

He is the acknowledged master of the beginning of the 20th Century and one of the world’s most important poster artists. He is now often called "The Father of modern advertising".
Until the forties many artists were inspired by him, making the Cappiello style one of the leading styles in Europe.

The Avant-Garde 1905-1920

Secession 1897-1918

From around 1892, an artistic current began to emerge from Vienna that differed from the French and Belgian forms of “Art Nouveau”. In rupture with the classic imperial art inspired by Baroque, the Viennese artists were influenced by both the already existing Art Nouveau and Gothic Art. This Viennese Art Nouveau was less “vegetal” and more “geometric” than its French and Belgian cousins.

In 1897, Gustav Klimt, Joseph Maria Olbrich and Joseph Hoffmann founded the “Secession” movement (the “Wiener Secession” in German) under the form of a group of architects and plasticiens.
In order to fulfill their aims (create a “total” art, new and international, and to fight against the nationalistic surge in Europe) they created their own exhibition space – the Secession palace on the plans of Joseph Olbrich. Numerous avant-garde artists would exhibit in this “temple of art”: Gustav Klimt of course, but also Koloman Moser, Egon Schiele, Franz Von Stuck or Ferdinand Hodler. Many of their works were labeled “scandalous” and were considered by their contemporaries as “crimes against art”.
The Secession posters presented avant-garde compositions that were inspired by illustration, decoration and typography. They were mostly cultural in theme (exhibitions, theatre, books, etc…) and their particular typography was considered to be unreadable at that time.
Today, the great series of posters designed by these masters for the exhibitions of the group in the Secession Palace are among the masterpieces of art history. They are extremely expensive and rare. Certain examples have reached tens of thousands of $.
From 1897 to 1903 the movement published the “Ver Sacrum” review which became the artistic manifesto and official mouthpiece. Other reviews such as “Pan” and “Simplicissimus” also participated in the expansion of secessionist ideas. The movement also developed in Germany, especially Munich, where Franz Von Stuck organized several exhibitions.
All these artists created in a more liberated manner, with graphic and pictorial compositions which were new to the 'extreme'. Their work announced the arrival of Expressionism and the artistic evolution of the 20th century.

Wiener Werkstatte 1903-1932

In 1903, the architect Joseph Maria Olbrich and the painter-designer Koloman Moser, founded a new association called “Wiener Werkstätte” (Viennese workshop) and distanced themselves from Art Nouveau. In their search for a “total art”, applied to architecture, furniture, textiles, ceramic, jewellery, metalwork, woodwork and the fine arts, they founded “WW”, a production studio where designs pre-figured the Bauhaus experiments. They were joined by Gustave Klimt and Otto Eckmann, creator of a new alphabetic style (police), as well as Oskar Kokoschka, Egon Schiele and Otto Wagner. The “WW” studio produced a multitude of avant-garde work up until 1932 and is represented in museums around the world.

Futurism Italy 1904-1939

In Italy Filippo Tommaso Marinetti and several other artists created a literacy and artistic movement called 'Futurismo' which rejected both traditional styles and Art Nouveau. Inspired by the emergence of the divisionism of Cubism, these artists exalted in depicting the modern world, its towns, its machines and speed of movement. They played with form, color, perspective and light to express a sense of the dynamic. In 1909 Marinetti wrote the “Futurist Manifesto”.
All documents, posters and publications of this group are extremely rare and almost impossible to find. This movement had an enormous influence in Italy and inspired numerous graphic designers from the 1920’s such as Depero, Nizzoli or Maga.

DADA Switzerland 1914-1923 "une bouffonerie issue du néant" (Hugo Ball)

Several artists in Zürich were grouped around Tristan Tzarra and Jean Arp. They produced works that were totally new and which broke all artistic rules. They advocated the end of all ideologies and promoted total liberty in all artistic creation.
This was DADA, an intellectual, literary and aesthetic movement which, beginning from 1914, would completely efface all artistic and social rules.
The horrors of the WWI had made old conventions obsolete. Humour, derision, absurdity, infantile mood, disrespect, scandal, erotism, nudity, collage, the abstract and a typography that was totally destructured were the traits of Dada.
These Avant-Garde artists would express themselves in all aspects of Art, poetry, theatre, dance, paintings and sculpture. Their Art had a strong political, revolutionary and libertine content which upset the establishment and often provoked scandal. After the war certain Dada happenings were censored, even prohibited and the works destroyed.
The name Dada originated in Zürich in May 1916 during an artists meeting (Tristan Tzarra, Jean Arp, Hugo Ball, Marcel Janco and Sophie Taeuber-Arp) in a Niederdorf café which they baptized ‘Café Voltaire’. The origin and the meaning of ‘Dada’ remains uncertain. The Dadaists deliberately covered their tracks by making contradictory declarations in spirit with the movement.
Dada is Dada.
From 1918 several artists joined: André Breton, Paul Eluard, Louis Aragon and Erik Satie in France, Marcel Duchamp, Francis Picabia and Man Ray in the USA, Georges Grosz and Kurt Schwitters in Germany. In 1921 most of the Parisians began to leave and in 1923 ‘Dada is dead’. This left the way open for Surrealism.
Dada left us with very few printed documents. Several museums are lucky enough to have several posters of Dada events, usually small in size. These Art objects rarely come on to the market. However Dada influence was enormous. By having broken all the rules, Dada allowed the diversity and creativity of Modern and Contemporary Art.
DADA is the Key to 20th century Art.

Constructivism USSR 1917-1981

A new graphism would develop in Russia after the Communist revolution of 1917. To mobilize crowds and transmit political ideas, the new regime employed avant-garde artists. They would produce a large number of posters that were inspired by the art of the French Revolution, Cubism and Futurism.
In 1923 El Lissitzki became the theoretician of this artistic movement, called Constructivism, which claimed a reinvention of graphics and typography. Numerous artists joined, such as Vladimir Kozlinski, Alexandre Rodtchenko and Vladimir Maïakovski.
From the end of the 1920’s artists demonstrated their mastery of photo-montage techniques: The Stenberg brothers in their cinema posters, Gustav Klutsis in his productivist compositions or in his posters showing huge crowds on their way to revolution. These early Constructivist posters are extremely rare.
The Soviet regime produced thousands of revolutionary posters and always on the same themes: portraits and citations of Lenin, Marx or Stalin, conquering soldiers over throwing capitalism, tractors and hard working peasants in fields, workers looking towards the future in an industrial setting. This is the period of Productivism.
If the posters of the 20’s-30’s are very sought after and can demand very high prices, the Communist posters of the 60’s-70’s are much more accessible.

SachPlakat or object poster (Germany and Switzerland 1905 -1960)

The brilliant “Washanstalt Zürich AG” Rooster from 1904 by Robert Hardmeyer could be considered as the source of inspiration for the "SachPlakat" posters. Even though it is an animal, it shows many characteristics of the object poster: one product oversized, just the name of the company, high quality paper and bright colors which were beautifully printed in stone-lithography. In 1905 in Germany Lucien Bernard began to design many beautiful object posters, showing just the product (Stiller, Manoli, Boesh).

In the twenties the "SachPlakat" style was developed in Switzerland by Masters like Otto Baumberger (the PKZ coat) Otto Ernst, Charles Kühn or Jacomo Müller.

In 1925 Niklaus Stoecklin in Basel created his famous wheel for the “cluser Transmissionen”. With this poster began the SachPlakat Basel School based around the printer “Wassermann”. From the thirties to the fifties, great Artists such as Herbert Leupin, Peter Birkhauser or Donald Brun produced many product posters, often for the Basel industry.
Their object posters are so beautifully printed in stone-lithography that the objects seem real. This over-size “reality” makes them hyper-realistic. For that reason the "SachPlakat" Basel school style is also called 'Magic Hyper-Realism'.
These original posters from the golden age of the Swiss printers and designers are now considered as works of Art and highly collectable. They are now in many collections and museums around the world.
Andy Warhol was inspired by Object posters, especially in his paintings of Campbell soup.

Art Deco


Between the two World Wars, in opposition to the natural arabesques of Art Nouveau (Art Nouveau’s organic inspiration), a new style would impose itself. Inspired by civilization’s technological development, the Art Deco style would try to redefine the simplicity and purity of forms and movement, principally by using the straight line and vivid colors. The term “Art Deco” is derived from the “Decorative Arts Exhibition” of 1925 in Paris.
Originating from the formal accomplishments of Cubism and Futurism (geometric forms, dynamism, perspective, structure and contrasting colors), graphic artists created posters of rare intellectual purity using vivid colors and highly stylized forms. The feeling of artistic liberty brought by Leonetto Cappiello and the avant-gardists of the 20th century opened the way for this graphical and typographical research which has retained its modernity even today.

A.M. Cassandre

With his posters for the “Normandie paquebot”, “Etoile du Nord, Nord Express” or his famous triptych “Dubo, Dubon, Dubonnet”, Adolphe Mouron Cassandre is certainly the most well known Art deco graphic designer in the World. The very identifiable style of Cassandre is the result of a simplification of form and the accentuation of perspective that underlines the very geometrical aspect of his subjects. He was one of the first to use lettering as a graphic element that is essential to the composition and also treat it as a surface.
These posters have become icons of Art Deco. In 1926 he founded the agency “Alliance Graphique” and in 1930 rejoined the U.A.M (Union des Artistes Modernes) uniting the five great French graphic artists of this period: Cassandre, Jean Carlu, Paul Colin, Charles Loupot and Francis Bernard.
They presented posters that were light and modern, together with a typography that was easily read, and a composition that was free from all the heaviness of past design.

The “Cassandre style” would inspire numerous artists such as G.Favre or Henry Reb in France, Otto Morach and Herbert Matter in Switzerland, Ludwig Hohlwein and Julius Engelhard in Germany, McKnight Kauffer in England or Seneca and Nizzoli in Italy.

Art Deco Chic

Artist like Roger Broders, George Barbier or René Vincent came up with the style “Art Deco Chic”: magnificently slender women from high society wearing ‘Chapeaux cloches’ ('bell-hats') accompanied by greyhounds proposing luxury cars or skiing and golfing holidays.