Leonetto Cappiello
Biography of Italian Functionalist Poster Artist & Designer.

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Maurin Quina Absinthe (1906)
One of the most influential
examples of poster art. From the
"Father of Modern Advertising".

Leonetto Cappiello (1875-1942)

One of the greatest figures in the history of poster art, the Italian artist and caricaturist Leonetto Cappiello succeeded the lithographers Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901), Jules Cheret (1836-1932) and Alphonse Mucha (1860-1939) as the leading advertising poster designer in Paris. His ascendancy - occurring in the late 1900s, as Art Nouveau was beginning to decline - was based on his new functionalist style of graphic art, in which a single bold image would be used to grab the viewer's attention. This graphic design proved highly effective, not only in drawing attention to the product but also in building a brand. It made Cappiello the acknowledged master of the advertising poster for almost 20 years. Active in Paris, Cappiello also completed a number of poster designs for Italian publishers such as Ricordi, and big brand companies like Campari. Known as the father of modern advertising, Cappiello was eventually superceded by the Art Deco master - the Ukrainian-born poster artist Adolphe Jean-Marie Mouron, known as A.M. Cassandre (1901-68).

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Early Life

Entirely self-taught as an artist, the Italian-born Cappiello first showed his work in 1892, at a group exhibition in Florence. His initial focus was on portraits and then caricature, and in 1896 he produced his first album of caricatures entitled Lanterna Magica. In 1898 he made his way to Paris, where he began painting caricatures for the French publication Le Rire. This in turn led to assignments from a number of other journals.

Early Posters

In 1899 he received his first poster commission for the newspaper Frou-Frou, and in 1900 he signed a poster art contract with the printers P. Vercasson, which he fulfilled at the same time as his caricature work. Meantime, the Parisian poster scene was experiencing something of a decline. In 1900, the pioneer Jules Cheret abandoned chromolithographic posters to concentrate on painting. In 1901, Toulouse-Lautrec died, and 3 years later the Art Nouveau designer Alphonse Mucha departed Paris for America and Czechoslovakia.


And from 1905 onwards, due to a combination of imitation and endless repetition, the Art Nouveau poster style began to run out of steam. It was a perfect opportunity for a young ambitious designer like Cappiello, who immediately set to work applying his skills as a caricaturist to the medium of poster art. Instead of relying on complex, stylized and painterly designs used by previous poster artists, Cappiello focused on instant visual impact, and produced images more appropriate to the faster pace of the 20th-century. In contrast to his predecessors, he appreciated that a simple visual metaphor for a product could create a much more powerful advertising message than all the floral complexity then in vogue.

Use of Simple Strong Imagery

Irrespective of he was advertising fashion, alcohol or food, he employed simple strong images which brought an attention-grabbing sense of humour to every poster he made. See for example the arresting "devil" poster design for Maurin Quina absinthe (1906). In addition to gaining widespread visibility, the technique of using single bold images was also extremely effective in brand-building, as certain products became closely associated with certain images. During the period 1901-1914, Cappiello produced several hundred colour lithographic posters in an idiom that revolutionized the art of poster design. Indeed Cappiello's functionalism dominated Parisian poster lithography until A.M. Cassandre's first Art Deco poster in 1923, and established the Italian as the father of modern advertising.

Mature Career and Art Deco

During the Great War, Cappiello returned to Italy where he worked as an interpreter. Afterwards, he returned to Paris and once again immersed himself in poster design. In 1919, he signed up with the French publisher Devambez, and also began doing designs for the Italian poster and music publisher Ricordi, notably for Ricordi's clients Campari and Cinzano.

Meantime in the aftermath of war the mood across Europe was changing. The war had smashed the traditional aesthetics, replacing them with the power of technology and machines. In decorative art and design, the organic idiom of Art Nouveau was being replaced by the machine-age style of a new international movement known as Art Deco. The new icons of power and speed were reflected in Art Deco's simplified, sleek shapes, and angular script. See also the sleek 1920s portraiture of Tamara de Lempicka (c.1895-1980). And with the new style came a new man, A.M Cassandre, whose 1923-4 Cubist-inspired posters for the Normandie, Etoile du Nord and Nord Express, were instrumental in undermining Cappiello's position as the dominant designer. In 1930 Cappiello obtained French citizenship, and later retired to Grasse in the South of France, where he died aged 67.


During the course of his spectacular career as one of the most successful poster designers of the 20th century, Cappiello created more than 530 poster lithographs and influenced a whole new generation of functional designers from Switzerland whose International Typographic Style would come to dominate the medium throughout the world. He ranks alongside Jules Cheret and Alphonse Mucha as a pioneer of poster art. In 1981 a major retrospective of Cappiello's applied art was staged at the Galleria Nationale du Grand Palais in Paris. His works can be seen in several of the best art museums in Europe.

Poster Campaigns

Famous poster art lithographs by Cappiello include campaigns for the following products:

- Maurin Quina Absinthe (1906)
- Cognac Gautier Freres (1907)
- Asti Cinzano (Vermouth (1910)
- Pates Baroni Pasta (1921)
- Bitter Campari (1921)
- Cafe Martin (1921)
- La Victoria Arduino Espresso (1922)
- Contratto Liqueur (1922)
- Les Couronnes Soda (1924)
- Cioccolato Venchi Candy (1924)
- Suchard Milk Chocolate (1925)
- Mossant Hats (1938)

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