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Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Jules Cheret

One has to wonder if we'd be raving about the Broadway production of Victor Hugo's
classic today were it not for the posters of Jules Cheret.
As flamboyant a showman as any circus
ringmaster, Jules Cheret looked as if he
might have just stepped out from one of
his posters.
One of the key factors I consider in deciding which artists to write about is that of the availability of their work. That's not the sole factor, of course. If it were, then the French artist Jules Cheret, working in Paris around the turn of the 20th century, might be considered the greatest artist of all time. Imagine, churning out thousands, perhaps even tens of thousands of painted images over the course of your lifetime and having virtually every one of them preserved in their original printed format. Choosing important images to feature, or even picking favorites, becomes something of a fool's errand. (It would help if I understood more than rudimentary French.) It might be going a bit far to say Jules Cheret invented the poster, but in any case, he certainly popularized them, and collectors of such things to day love him to death.

Cheret Posters could well have been the first
realization of the old advertising rule, "sex sells."
Jules Cheret was born in Paris in 1836. He was not born to wealth but to creativity, becoming an apprentice lithographer at the age of thirteen. He studied painting at France's National School of Design then spent another seven years in London studying advanced lithography. Thus Cheret was no classically trained artist, but one who knew the rapidly developing technology of color lithography like Monet knew waterlilies. In fact, he took no small part in developing that technology. Paris then, and even now, was as famous for its posters as for its pastries. Cheret was a master at perfecting this art form, practically inventing the term "advertisement." Along with Henri Toulouse-Lautrec (with whom he often collaborated) and Czech artist, Alphonse Mucha (with whom he didn't), these three designers have sometimes been termed the "first commercial artists" and, in Cheret's case, the "Father of the Modern Poster."

Pantomime from the Salon Cheret, Jules Cheret.
Not all of Cheret's works were advertising posters
Very often outstanding success in life is a combination of being born at the right time and in the right place with the right combination of training and talent. Jules Cheret was fortunate in all these factors. He began his career in the early 1870s, during France's Third Republic and the period known as "la Belle Epoque" (the Beautiful Era). In the U.S. it was called by Mark Twain "The Gilded Age." In England it was a time when the staid Victorian Era was giving way to the dynamic Edwardian Era. All over Europe, following the Franco-Prussian War until the outbreak of WW I hostilities, it was a time of peace, prosperity, and cultural flourish unmatched since the Renaissance and until the modern Post-WW II era.

 Le Chateau d'eau and plaza, Exposition Universal, 1900, Paris, France,
was to architecture what Cheret's posters was to art.
A Cheret poster for Fairyland,
in "Gay Paree." no doubt.
My, how meanings meander.
Two world's fairs in Paris, the one in 1889 which gave birth to the Eiffel Tower, and another again in 1900, which gave birth to the gold medal on the side of Campbell's soup cans, were the extravagant essence of Jules Cheret's stylish Parisian ambiance. "Over the top" was good. "Too much is not enough," and "Catch the eye," could all have been Cheret advertising mottoes. Cheret's posters reigned supreme as the zenith of promotional style so long as the era lasted. But all good things must come to an end. Paris after the "Great War" was no longer quite so gay. After the war, Cheret took his considerable accumulated wealth and retired to the French Rivera where he died in 1932 at the age of ninety-six

Cheret's Ice Palace poster.
More than any other artist (except for the two mentioned above) Jules Cheret shaped our collective image of, not just his own time, but of Paris and the French national persona for all time. He figuratively (perhaps literally, as well) invented "Gay Paree" decades before the 1927 American film co-opted the title (The Girl from Gay Paree). His posters are long on glamorous, colorful, sensuous, even seductive imagery, short on informative text, and often wildly demonstrative as to typography. It made no difference whether Cheret was selling claret, cigarettes, chocolates, circuses, singers, nightclubs, books, or baggets, the formula was largely the same, the "look" his alone. It's little wonder, even in his own time, collectors were already tearing his posters off walls to take home and hang on their own. This may account for why we still have so many of them; but would seem to defeated their original purpose, I would think.

Today, fans of Jules Cheret posters can wear their collections. 


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