Advertising Through Art: The Golden Age of Posters

An advertisement for Gants Parfumerie, created by André Wilquin in 1934

An advertisment for Gants Parfumerie, created by André Wilquin in 1934

Many would say that ads usually have negative connotations. They flash annoyingly in pop-up windows, they cover up otherwise beautiful architecture with brandnames and slogans, or they interrupt our favorite televisions shows. Rarely would the regular person say that they like ads. But recently, the hit show Mad Man has opened up the world in a new way to viewers across the country that has been well-known to advertising agencies for a long time: advertisments are an artform. The writers and artists who work at the fictional Sterling Cooper discuss advertising as a way to capture the hearts and minds of consumers. Advertisements are intended to make viewers laugh or feel better about themselves, to comfort them and entertain them at the same time.

Some of most famous artworks began as advertisements for something. Movie and theater posters are key evidence of this — often the poster is more memorable than the film itself: I never saw Cloverfield, but I remember that the poster had a headless Statue of Liberty and Manhattan burning in the background, an image that drew in audiences for its release. The most well-known era in poster art, known as the Golden Age of Posters was from about 1865-1939. These posters didn’t just advertise, they inspired. With dramatic colors and lighting, they easily drew in audiences. Below are some of our favorite from this era, which have lasting influence even today.

Alphonse Mucha is considered one of the most successful poster artists of all time. His art was so elegant and beautiful that people would tear his posters down from the streets and keep them. The above advertisment is for JOB brand of cigarettes. Whether or not you condone smoking, you have to admit that this is a pretty classy ad.

This image of the poster by Theophile Alexandre Steinlein was remarkably famous in 1846. The Chat Noir was a theater-restaurant where there was often plays, poetry, readings and songs. The direct stare of the Cat is meant to convey the characteristics of the true Parisian cat, as well as the true Parisian: bold and elegant. This image is still famous today.

This advertisement for the world famous magician and escapologist, Harry Houdini, captured crowds with the dramatic images of hands captured in every increasingly complicated locks. In the center, Houdini stands looking brave and defiant. Who wouldn’t want to see this man triumph over death?

This poster depicting the French State (ETAT) Railways was so popular with collectors and institutions, that it became impossible for the artist to find one even for himself.  So to satisfy their requests, he kept redrawing his maquette, the original of which he had lost years earlier.  About 6 of these paintings are in museums including the Pompidou Center, the Musée de L’Affiche in Paris, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York (where it is currently on exhibit).  Even at the inaugural exhibition of the Musée de L’Affiche, it was a subsequent painting and not the original poster that was exhibited.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s poster, bold and colorful with flat forms and strong lines, were a familiar sight in Paris in the 1890s. They advertised luxury items such as clothing, theater, and food. His advertisements were very popular as they felt representative of the Belle Epoque.


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