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chÉret and postermania
the impact of the illustrated poster
toulouse-lautrec and mucha
political posters and media for billposting
reaction against the poster

In the modern era the poster became both a means of mass communication and a new artistic medium. The freedom to post bills was established in 1791 in France during the French Revolution; the poster was an important medium for nascent revolutionary political culture. Through much of the nineteenth century, however, political posters, subject to severe surveillance, were scarce in France and in much of Europe. On the other hand, commercial posters developed as part of the birth of mass consumer society. From the 1830s, places of consumption for the middle classes in Paris and London multiplied, prompting increasingly sophisticated advertising campaigns. London was the initial center of both poster and press advertising; English posters were exempt from special taxes, unlike in France. Posters were displayed on poster-carriages and construction fences lit at night. Charles Dickens (1812–1870) christened the droves of men carrying placards front and back "sandwichmen."

The pioneers of the illustrated poster were French. Jean-Alexis Rouchon (1794–1878) designed the first illustrated posters printed in color destined for the street from 1845. The fin de siècle marked the golden age of the illustrated poster, especially in France. Poster artists such as Jules Chéret (1836–1932) and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864–1901) were influential in both fine and commercial arts. Created by a designer, reproduced through modern technology, and widely displayed for the purpose of advertising, the illustrated poster was a locus of art, commerce, technology, and ideologies.

chÉret and postermania

Chéret was the most popular and prolific poster artist. He designed over one thousand posters by 1900, for subjects ranging from café-concerts, plays, novels, department stores, and exhibitions to countless consumer products. He transformed the poster when he introduced in 1869 a system of three-color lithographic printing. Until then, color was incidental to mainly black-and-white posters. The landmark French press law of 1881 endowed the freedom of the press and billposting and also allowed the use of white background in posters, previously reserved for official posters. This coincided with increased literacy. The popularity of poster art led to "poster-mania" from 1895 to 1900.

The illustrated poster transformed the way in which products were advertised, through the vast dissemination of images that decidedly targeted the consumer's visualizing capacity, eliciting desires and fantasies. The display of goods and commercial exchange had become subjects of modern art as well. A Bar at the Folies Bergère (1881–1882) by Edouard Manet (1832–1883) depicts a barmaid in a brasserie in which young women entertained male customers, a theme depicted in Chéret's 1875 poster for the same establishment. Circus Parade (1887–1888) and Circus (1891) by Georges Seurat (1859–1891) were clearly influenced by Chéret's circus posters. There was much cooperation among poster artists, fine artists, and literary figures. The journal La Plume (1889–1905) distributed poster panels and organized poster exhibitions. Contributors to La Plume included the artists Eugène Grasset (1845–1917), Georges de Feure (1868–1928), Pierre Bonnard (1867–1947), Toulouse-Lautrec, Theophile-Alexandre Steinlen (1859–1923), James Sydney Ensor (1860–1949), and the Symbolist poets Stephane Mallarmé (1842–1898) and Paul Verlaine (1844–1896).

the impact of the illustrated poster

Poster art figured significantly in the debate over modernity and modern art and spurred debates as to its effectiveness as a commercial medium. Many

contemporary critics embraced poster art as a truly modern art that was transforming drab streets into colorful outdoor galleries. The writer Joris-Karl Huysmans (1848–1907) and others praised Chéret for creating vital new art that revealed everyday mores. Thought to be reviving French "gaiety," Chéret was called the "Watteau of the street." However, many advertising experts considered the illustrated poster an ineffective advertising method compared to systematic "American" methods. Others objected to the illustrated poster precisely because it seemed to be effective at seducing the public and inducing unnecessary consumption.

Poster images invariably depicted women. Chéret's posters were populated with scantily clad women called "chérettes," joyous figures who seemed to float in the air. That images of women predominated in posters signaled both the feminization of consumption and the commodification of the female form. Women were depicted as enjoying out-door activities such as visiting exhibitions and fairs, ice skating, bicycling, and traveling. The representation of women in posters can be seen as reflecting both empowerment and dependency on appearances. The illustrated poster also led to the intensification of celebrity culture; the extraordinarily popular French actress Sarah Bernhardt (1844–1923) and other stars were frequent subjects of publicity campaigns and were in turn hired to advertise products.

toulouse-lautrec and mucha

Toulouse-Lautrec became famous with his Moulin Rouge poster of 1891. He was thought to turn poster art into true fine art, through bold and striking compositions and expressive use of line. His main subject was the world of Montmartre. The Czech artist Alphonse Mucha (1860–1939) became an overnight sensation in Paris in 1895 when he designed a poster for Bernhardt. Mucha also designed theater decoration and jewelry for Bernhardt. His posters were filled with Art Nouveau images of exotic and sensuous women and symbolic and occult language. While poster art was largely a French phenomenon, it was also a cosmopolitan phenomenon fostering a great deal of exchange of ideas. Postermania was embraced by the international avant-garde and middle-class aficionados. One of the most innovative poster artists of the time was Thomas Theodor Heine (1867–1948), whose images were strikingly modern and simple.

political posters and media for billposting

This period saw tens of millions of political posters as well. During the intensive nationwide election campaign by General Georges-Ernest-Jean-Marie Boulanger (1837–1891), who threatened the Republican system in France, billposters of rival camps battled one another in the street and employed long ladders to stick bills everywhere. Posters were displayed on a large variety of media. Besides walls and construction scaffoldings, in France items of street furniture such as kiosks and Morris columns were used—for commercial posters only—as were vehicles and sandwichmen. Posters were placed strategically according to the geographic division of different classes.

reaction against the poster

After the turn of the century, the sheer inundation of streets by posters provoked a reaction from the public in many parts of Europe. Posters were seen as pollutants challenging the capacity of the human mind to absorb stimuli. Laws were passed to reduce the number and size of posters and preserve monuments and views of the countryside. At the same time advertising experts sought to adopt psychological theories into poster design. The poster art of the post–World War I period would be very different from the previous era, informed by such efforts as well as by trends in art.

See alsoArt Nouveau; Bernhardt, Sarah; Dickens, Charles; Fin de Siècle; Manet, Édouard; Trade and Economic Growth.


Feinblatt, Ebria and Bruce Davis. Toulouse-Lautrec and His Contemporaries: Posters of the Belle Epoque from the Wagner Collection. Los Angeles, 1985.

Rennert, Jack. Posters of the Belle Epoque: The Wine Spectator Collection. New York, 1990.

Richards, Thomas. The Commodity Culture of Victorian England: Advertising and Spectacle, 1851–1914. Stanford, Calif., 1990.

Wischermann, Clemens, and Elliott Shore, eds. Advertising and the European City: Historical Perspectives. Alder-shot, U.K., 2000.

Hazel Hahn

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