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Posters and billboard. Their history history in the 1900s from its origins

Posters and billboards as works of art

Posters and billboards. Today on the subject I have to make a confession: before a few weeks ago I had never gotten very involved in this topic. The posters.

Lately for work, I’ve been picking up vintage newspapers and catalogues, mostly French, of the great Universal Expositions of the late 1800s and early 1900s and I’m increasingly interested in those that until not long ago were considered applied arts or minor arts, terms you will read on this occasion and never again here.

Posters are not works of art in the strict sense. Correction: they are not painted. No artist’s brush has ever landed on them. They are lithographs, created in multiples therefore in more than one copy and numbered (…often).

Posters and billboards. Their purpose and origins

Their original purpose was to promote and advertise Parisian club nights, exhibitions, book reviews, chocolates, medicines and much more. They were created by everyone: from great artists to poor photographers. But, above they have glorified anyone from Sarah Bernhardt, the muse of the theater of the early years of the last century and lover of characters such as Gustav Dorè, up to the more contemporary Charlie’s Angel Farrah Fawcett.

They can be considered works of art for many reasons and I want to briefly tell you their story.

They were born more or less, as we know them today, in the Belle Epoque, which goes from the end of the 19th century to the First World War.

Posters and billboards. Jules Cheret and the Bal Valentino

Art historians have even identified an exact event linked to their birth: it was 1868 and the poster was “Bal Valentino” by the artist Jules Cheret. Not only a creative artist, but also an innovator in his field, Cheret developed the technique of lithography, managing to produce large format posters in numerous copies and at reasonable costs.

In addition to having become the father of this medium (still very popular in various other forms…) Cheret remains today one of the three most important artists, all French, of posters. And also the most prolific: it has produced more than a thousand.

Posters and billboards. Henri de Touolouse – Lautrec

Another character undoubtedly linked to this art is Henri de Toulouse – Lautrec. His body of work includes some 30 posters, but he was and still is recognized as the largest. Lautrec had the opportunity to study Cheret’s lithographic technique, which he made his own, making it become the way in his time to bring art to the attention of the great masses. Due to their beauty and rarity, as you can imagine, his posters are of great value today.

Posters and billboards. Alphonse Mucha

The third protagonist of our itinerary is Alphonse Mucha, who, among the numerous posters, produced many on commission from Sarah Bernhardt. I will also tell you that the collaborations between the two were not exclusively in this field, but also in that of jewels, since it was Mucha who for a certain period designed the Bernhardt scene jewels signed by the Maison Fouquet.

Mucha’s posters are still copied today and its popularity over time has been such that the term “Mucha styleto determine a series of works related to the themes and representations of this undisputed master. The same style today is perhaps more easily understood as Art Nouveau in France or Liberty in Italy.


Posters and billboards. The value of the works

I think it is superfluous at this point to specify that the artistic value of these objects depends, of course, on various factors: conditions, vivacity of the colors, rarity, age and, of course, artist and movement.

Several experts agree in posing some substantial questions: all posters were produced with paper of little value, in some cases more than a century ago. And, therefore, even with the most careful care, restoration and conservation, unfortunately, a long life is not guaranteed for them.

For me, however, they are and will always remain little masterpieces.


If you want to learn more about the subject and understand the development of this art in Italy, I recommend these two texts, both edited by Dario Cimorelli and published by Silvana Editoriale.

posters. Advertising and Italian Fashion 1890-1950. The history of fashion and the relationship with advertising from the end of the 19th century to the middle of the last century is told, with almost 400 color images of stupendous posters, including my favourites: those of Dudovich!!

posters. Irony, fantasy and eroticism in advertising (1895-1960). All Italian creativity, told through a choice of ironic, allusive and certainly super modern posters for the times. Advertisements begin to spread throughout Italy and on the streets it is impossible not to stop at every billboard. Here are some of the most beautiful collected in a single publication.

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