Poster Art
Types, Characteristics of Lithographic Posters.

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Lithographic colour poster for the
famous French dancer Lois Fuller
(1893) at the Folies Bergere Cabaret.
By Jules Cheret.

Poster Art (c.1860-1980)


Poster Art: Definition, Types
Fine Art Posters
Reproductions of Famous Paintings
Political Propaganda Posters
History of Poster Art

The famous Kitchener World War I
Recruitment poster. A dramatic and
highly successful use of a poster
campaign for political ends.
Designed by Alfred Leete (1882-1933)

Poster Art: Definition, Types

The term "Poster art" describes a general category of printed 2-D artwork which is designed to be affixed to a vertical surface. Its evolution and development was (and is) closely linked to advances in printmaking processes, notably lithography and offset litho, which in turn are strongly influenced by photographic and software techniques.

Posters may consist exclusively of images, or images and text. In rare cases (eg. works of calligraphy) it may consist entirely of textual graphics.

Poster art is used by painters and printmakers, art publishers and cultural organizers, politicians and propagandists, as well as commercial firms, PR and Advertising Agencies, and may be divided into the following types: (1) Fine Art Posters (2) Reproductions of Famous Paintings (3) Political Posters.



For more information,
see: Printmaking Glossary.

Definitions, forms, styles, genres,
periods, see: Types of Art.

For details of differing types
of visual and fine arts, see:
Meaning/Definition of Art.

Fine Art Posters (c.1870-1940s)

The French printmaker Jules Cheret (1836-1932) was the first artist to make his fine art career in the medium of poster advertising. Active during the last three decades of the 19th Century, he developed the 3-colour lithographic process, and thus effectively invented the lithographic poster. This type of poster art, influenced by Japanese Ukiyo-e woodcut prints by artists like Hokusai (1760-1849) and Hiroshige (1797-1858), began purely as a means to sell products and theatrical entertainment and then developed into a popular art form.

From the late 1860s, first in Paris then Milan and Berlin, lithographic colour posters became the principal means of mass communication within the rapidly growing cities of Europe and America. Publishers and advertising agencies would commission images/graphics from artists, typically in the form of a gouache or watercolour painting (known as a maquette), which would then be lithographed into a finished poster. This advertising art became so popular with fine art collectors that a huge market sprang up for vintage posters.


In addition to Jules Cheret, who himself produced more than 1,000 posters, other famous artists who explored the medium of poster-lithography included Impressionists like Edouard Manet and Edgar Degas, the traditionalist Henri Fantin-Latour, the Symbolist Odilon Redon, pioneer expressionists such as Edvard Munch, Nabis like Pierre Bonnard and Edouard Vuillard, the American painter/illustrator Maxfield Parrish, and the peerless Czech graphic artist Alphonse Mucha. The Post-Impressionist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was a particularly outstanding poster-painter, famous for works like Moulin Rouge (1891) and Jane Avril-Jardin de Paris. Poster art was greatly stimulated during the 1890s with the emergence of the style known as Art Nouveau, of which Aubrey Beardsley, the English illustrator, was a master. He proved a significant influence on the Belle Epoque poster movement. In Scotland, a group known as The Four, associated with the Glasgow School of Painting (1880-1915), also produced a range of collaborative posters. For more about late-19th century art, see also: Post-Impressionist Painting (c.1880-1905).

Note: Posters were very important to Sergei Diaghilev, organiser of the ballet company known as Les Ballets Russes, that first arrived in Paris in 1909. Colour was a vital theme in the sets, costumes and lighting of the company, and was reflected accordingly in the promotional posters.

Poster advertising art of the early 20th Century was strongly influenced by functionalism: see for instance the attention-grabbing green/black poster for Maurin Quina absinthe (1906), designed by the brash Italian caricaturist Leonetto Cappiello. After Art Nouveau, and early functionalism, the next international style of poster art, which appeared in the 1920s, was Art Deco, which exactly reflected the new sleek technological age. Poster artists of the Art Deco era included Herbert Matter, Fernand Leger, Amedee Ozenfant and the French-Ukrainian Adolphe Mouron Cassandre - all noted for their photomontage tourist posters. Victor Vasarely, the Hungarian founder of Op-art, was also a professional poster designer and typographer during the inter-war years. Meanwhile, Switzerland was rapidly becoming an important centre of graphic art. Key figures in Swiss design included Steinlen and Grasset (both Art Nouveau), Emil Cardinaux (noted for his 1908 Matterhorn travel poster), as well as a younger generation of Swiss artists - influenced by a diverse combination of Russian Constructivism, Dutch De Stijl and Bauhaus designs. Led by Ernst Keller, and including Jan Tschichold and Theo Ballmer, among others, this generation went on to pioneer the dominant International Typographic Style after World War II. See also: Illustration.

Poster art has declined noticeably since the 1940s, largely as a result of the increasingly predominant role of photography. One exception to this trend was the psychedelic rock poster, pioneered by Wes Wilson. This genre appeared during the late 1960s, along with other pop music works such as Milton Glaser's poster for Bob Dylan's 1967 'Greatest Hits' album. Strongest in San Francisco and New York, the music poster movement expanded into marketing and merchandizing with free album-posters, as well as promotional concert posters. Demand for this type of fine art echoed the earlier demand for vintage posters during the late 19th century.

Reproductions of Famous Paintings

Since the 1960s, the development of offset lithography, as well as the increasing sophistication of both photographic and computerized printing techniques, has led to the emergence of a widely based market for the replication of famous painters and graphic designs. Ironically, some of the most popular early subjects for this type of "art poster" were the original 19th century posters by painters like Toulouse-Lautrec, and the Art Nouveau imagery of Aubrey Beardsley and Alphonse Mucha. Popular modernists include the glamorous Art Deco portrait painter Tamara de Lempicka (c.1895-1980), as well as Andy Warhol (1928-87), Roy Lichtenstein (1923-97), Rene Magritte (1898-1967) and Jack Vettriano (b.1951).

Since then, the catalogue of art posters has grown to include masterpieces by all major European Old Masters, such as: Jan van Eyck, Albrecht Durer, Hieronymus Bosch, Hans Holbein The Younger, Botticelli, Leonardo Da Vinci, Raphael, Michelangelo, Paolo Veronese, El Greco, Caravaggio, Adam Elsheimer, Rubens, Van Dyck, Diego Velazquez, Rembrandt, Jan Vermeer, Francesco Guardi, and Goya. Poster publishers also produce reproductions of works by a wide variety of modern and contemporary famous painters, including: JMW Turner, Caspar David Friedrich, Dante Rossetti, John Everett Millais, Edward Burne-Jones, Corot, Claude Monet, Alfred Sisley, Edgar Degas, Paul Gauguin, Van Gogh, Georges Seurat, Henri Rousseau, Marc Chagall, Gustav Klimt, Matisse, Kandinsky, Modigliani, Egon Schiele, Picasso, Edward Hopper, Norman Rockwell, Rene Magritte, Salvador Dali, Bridget Riley, Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, and Jack Vettriano, to name but a few.

Political Propaganda Posters

Political propagandists resorted to poster art around the globe throughout the first four decades of the 20th century. In America, this form of propaganda was exemplified by James Montgomery Flagg's famous 1917 army recruiting poster depicting Uncle Sam pointing directly at the viewer; in Britain, by Alfred Leete's 1914 picture of Lord Kitchener pointing at the viewer, with the caption "Your Country Needs You"; and in Germany by Lucien Berhardt's poster proclamation about War Bonds. Famous World War II propaganda posters include Rosie the Riveter by the everyman artist Norman Rockwell.

Poster Art in the USSR

For the Bolshevik government, posters were a critical means of influencing and controlling millions of illiterate workers and peasants, and were produced in batches of between 5,000 to 100,000. Styles varied from highly symbolic avant-garde constructivism and photomontage, to Socialist Realism. Subject to tight control by ideological chiefs like Andrei Zhdanov and Mikhail Suslov, famous exponents of the idiom include: the Old Bolshevik Dimitri Moor, the Constructivist artist Gustav Klutsis (1895-1944), the creator of the ROSTA Windows Mikhail Cheremnykh, and the poster artists Irakly Toidze, Viktor Koretsky, and Viktor Ivanov.

Poster Art in Communist China

Posters performed a unique role in 20th century Chinese urban society. Like public newspapers in the Soviet Union, they are an important means of communicating social and political information, particularly to urban inhabitants. Early Chinese poster art (1949-1965) dwelt on building the new communist state. Mao's catastrophic campaigns concerning the Great Leap Forward and enforced collectivization, during which 30-40 million Chinese die, were countered by posters depicting scenes of contentment and happiness. More aggressive imagery was used to identify Western Imperialist enemies during the era of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), while more subtle designs became the norm during the Modernization period (1977-1997). Famous Chinese poster artists include: Qian Daxin, Cai Zhenhua, Xin Lilang, Li Zongjin, Rui Guangting, Wu Shaoyun, Jin Meisheng, Zhang Lingzhi, Jiang Nanchun, Li Mubai, Ha Qiongwen,and Zhou Ruizhuang. Contemporary Chinese artists who have explored poster art include a number of major painters such as: Zhang Xiaogang, Zeng Fanzhi, Yue Minjun, and Wang Guangyi.

• For information about the evolution of the visual arts, see: History of Art.
• For dates and a chronolgical timeframe, see: History of Art Timeline.
• For more about the history and types of lithographic posters, see: Homepage.

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