Jules Cheret (1836-1932)
The painter and printmaker Jules Cheret (1836-1932) was a key figure in French painting during the late 19th century, and the first artist to make his reputation in the medium of poster art. An apprentice lithographer who went on to develop a cheaper type of colour lithography and, in the process, the lithographic advertising poster. Moreover, he enhanced the aesthetic nature of the poster, endowing it with graceful designs and transforming it into an independent decorative art form. Known as the "father of the Belle Epoque poster", he inspired other painters to explore the genre, and later produced a special book entitled Masters of the Poster, to promote the best designers. An avid employer of the female form in his designs, to generate extra viewer-appeal, his subjects became so popular that Parisians dubbed them Cherettes. Cheret was a key figure in the history of poster art, producing more than 1,000 posters, beginning with his 1867 advertisement for Sarah Bernardt. In 1889 he received a major solo exhibition and a gold medal at the International Exhibition in Paris. He was awarded the Legion d'Honneur in 1890, and in 1928 the French government honoured his achievements in graphic art with the opening of the Cheret Museum in Nice.
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Born in Paris into a poor typographer's family, Jules Cheret's earliest art training was a three-year apprenticeship with a lithographer, followed by an evening course of drawing lessons at the Ecole Nationale de Dessin, under the French artist Horace Lecoq de Boisbaudran. In addition, like most students, Cheret would have absorbed some of the works of famous painters in the Louvre and other museums. Thus by the age of 18, Cheret was able to scrape a basic living selling designs and drawings to music publishers and other customers, but he wanted more.
In 1854 he travelled to London, where the techniques of lithography and chromolithography were more advanced, but succeeded only in gaining a lowly paid job as a sketcher for The Maple Furniture Company. Returning to Paris in 1858 he received his first slice of luck in the form of a commission for a poster advertising Jacques Offenbach's operetta Orpheus in the Underworld. Disappointed when this failed to trigger more commissions, Cheret went back to London where he spent the next seven years developing his skills in lithography, and absorbing the British approach to poster design and printing, in the process. He designed posters for music halls, cabarets, theatres and circuses, as well as book covers and illustrations for the publisher Cramer.
Rimmel and Chromolithography
In 1866, Cheret returned once again to Paris and, thanks to a friend's introduction, was given the opportunity to design packaging for the perfume manufacturer, Eugene Rimmel. This led to Rimmel supporting the young designer in the establishment of a commercial colour lithographic shop. At this point, one should note that although the lithographic process had been invented by Alois Senefelder as far back as 1798, it had little effect on poster art until the invention of chromolithography later in the 19th century. Even then, it was a time-consuming and therefore expensive process. Cheret now revolutionized the lithographic poster by inventing a convenient process which enabled lithographers to produce a wide spectrum of colours from just three stones. Suddenly low-cost colour posters were a reality.
Cheret duly set about creating a wide variety of inventive colourful poster ads for theatre and music hall customers like the Moulin Rouge, the Folies Bergeres, the Eldorado, the Olympia, Theatre de l'Opera, and the Alcazar d'Ete. He also advertised individual performers - exemplified by his 1867 La Biche au Bois poster for Sarah Bernhardt, and various promotions for Yvette Guilbert of the Concert Parisien. Both advertisers and viewers loved Cheret's ads, and he suddenly found himself and his style of graphic design in huge demand. Other artists followed his chromolithographic method including: Theophile Steinlen (1859-1923), creator of the original poster "Cabaret Du Chat Noir"; the Czech Art Nouveau artist Alphonse Mucha (1860-1939); the great Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901); and the decorative artists Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947), and Edouard Vuillard (1868-1940).
The celebrated 1893 Loie Fuller poster for the Folies Bergeres is typical of Cheret's style. It shows a central figure of animated beauty engulfed by swirling drapery and vivid streaming colours. His designs were also influenced by the frivolous manner of French Rococo painters like Jean-Honore Fragonard and Jean-Antoine Watteau, and also the awesome soaring movement of Giambattista Tiepolo's fresco paintings on the ceiling of the Wurzburg Residenz. In addition, for even greater impact, Cheret included in his posters a range of joyful, elegant and lively women - quickly dubbed 'Cherettes' by Parisians - who wore low-cut bodices and smoked in public. It was a masterstroke. Soon, Cheret's business began producing adverising posters for beverages and alcohol, perfumes, soaps, cosmetics and pharmaceutical products. Eventually he was promoting railway companies as well as a series of manufacturing businesses.
In 1890, he was awarded the Legion d'honneur for his outstanding contribution to applied art, but he continued working, having become almost the personnification of La Belle Epoque. In 1895, to encourage other artists to explore the medium of poster art, Cheret published his book called the Maîtres de l'Affiche collection (Masters of the Poster), which reproduced the best works of nearly 100 Parisian poster-designers. Thanks largely to his influence, these poster artists were transforming Parisian streets into colourful art galleries, while major poster exhibitions were held throughout Europe, and publishers produced extra copies of the best posters to satisfy collectors.
In the last period of his life, Cheret retired to the French Riviera at Nice, where he was honoured in 1928 with the opening of the Cheret Museum. He died in 1932 at the ripe old age of 96 and his body was buried in the Cimetiere Saint-Vincent in Paris. His posters remain some of the most highly sought-after items of French graphic art.
Poster art by Jules Cheret can be seen in some of the best art museums in Europe.