Advertising Posters and Cartons

One of the most iconic art nouveau images of all, this 1896 image for Absinthe Robette by the Belgian posterist Privat-Livemont has spawned a million reproductions.

The height of the absinthe boom in the late 19th century, coincided with the rise of the large lithographic advertising poster as a powerful commercial and artistic medium – pioneered by the work of Jules Chéret. Absinthe producers were quick to take advantage of this new advertising opportunity, and a range of largely art-nouveau influenced posters are shown on the following pages in a variety of formats, from multi-sheet billboard-sized versions to smaller card-backed printings designed for display in bars and bistrots. Anti-absinthe posters were produced by temperance organisations like the Ligue Nationale Contre L’Alcoolisme, while the pro-absinthe (anti-prohibitionist) forces followed suite with some remarkable posters of their own.

The basic techniques for lithographic printing were first developed in the late eighteenth century, but were initially unsuited to large format poster production. Such posters as there were, were usually quite small and produced either by woodblock or simple metal engraving. Colour was rarely used, and there was little attempt to integrate text and illustrations. From around 1830 though, a series of technical advances made stone lithography an increasingly attractive technique, both because of the subtle and multi-dimensional colours that could be achieved, and because of the freedom it afforded the artist, who could draw directly on the polished stone surface. The father of the modern poster was Jules Chéret who in the late 19th century took the technique to technical and artistic heights previously unimagined, producing vivid, fully integrated advertising posters in extremely large formats, usually printed in multiple passes from three carefully aligned stones, one for each of the three primary colours.

Stone lithography was based on the use of large limestone blocks, which were sanded to a smooth perfectly flat surface. On to this the artist drew his design, using a grease crayon, which was absorbed by the porous surface of the limestone. Once transferred to the printing press, the surface of the stone was moistened with water – those areas not covered with the grease crayon soaked up the water and became wet, while the greasy lines of the drawing itself were water-repellent, and remained dry. Then an oil-based ink was applied with a roller – the greasy parts of the stone picked up the ink, the wet parts didn’t. Finally damp paper was carefully placed on top of the ink covered stone, and even pressure applied by running the whole thing through a specially designed press. The entire process was then repeated for the second primary colour, and then for the third. The combination of the three passes – red, blue, yellow – produced, in the hand of a master craftsman, a finished print with colours both subtle and intense, and shadings of almost infinite variety. In many respects the quality of colour printing achieved by Chéret and the other great masters of the late 19th and early 20th centuries has never been equalled or surpassed since. Although there are still artists working in this medium, some of the original techniques have been lost, and printing presses to handle the huge stone blocks are no longer manufactured – one of the reasons that, fortunately, fakes or forgeries are not generally a problem in this field.

Chéret’s innovation took Paris, then France and then the world by storm. Never before had words and graphics been so tightly and seamlessly integrated, and never before had such powerful and effective images been so cheap to produce. These posters had ushered in the age of modern advertising. Building on Chéret’s work, a handful of artists adopted the medium and elevated the advertising poster to fine art. The pioneer, in 1891, was Henri Toulouse-Lautrec. His first poster, Moulin Rouge, is a masterpiece and was recognised as such within two decades of its initial production. Today it’s one of the most sought after and valuable of all posters. In 1894, Alphonse Mucha, a Czech artist working in Paris, ushered in the era of Art Nouveau poster design, with a sinuous and haunting style influenced by the Pre-Raphaelites, the Arts and Crafts Movement, and the then vogue for Orientalism. This style was to dominate the Parisian scene for at least the next decade, and inspire several worthy successors to Mucha, chief amongst them the Belgian posterist Henri Privat-Livemont. The Privat-Livemont Absinthe Robette poster (shown on the next page) with its wonderfully subtle and translucent shades of green, is technically speaking, a particularly superlative example of this lithographic printing process.

Within a few years of Chérets first production, the most striking advertising posters were already being collected as art objects in their own right, and in the 1890’s the famous “Maitres de l’Affiche” series provided small format versions of the most famous designs specifically for the collector market. Notwithstanding this however, the overwhelming majority of posters were destroyed in actual use – mounted on walls or sidings and then ripped away when the next new image became available. While the posters were originally produced in editions that usually numbered in the hundreds or even thousands, very few survive in their original state. Those that survive in good condition today, usually originate from printer’s archives discovered many decades later.

Advertising carton for Absinthe Barth & Cie, based in Châlon-sur-Saône. 43 x 31cm.

An unrecorded lithographic poster for Rosinette, Absinthe Rosé Oxygénée, (37″ x 50″), printed by Camis around 1900. This is the only know historical reference to a rosé absinthe.