French Art Nouveau

Rococo ornamentation was a big influence on French Art Nouveau, just like Arts & Crafts was a big influence on the English version. It was known as L’Art Moderne in France and Belgium.

In 1881, a new law concerning freedom of the press allowed posters almost everywhere. The cabaret posters of Jules Chéret and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec dominated the streets. In addition, Paris had just been re-designed by Baron Haussmann, the architect for Napoleon III. The wide boulevards that everybody loves today were built to accommodate artillery for mob crowd control. Chéret’s lively, colorful posters appeared like explosions of color on the white walls of the newly laid-out city. He took the “look” used by circus programs and combined it with a great sense of style and layout, natural ability and skill as a lithographer. Pop art + great painting = Chéret. With his hundreds of posters all over Paris, Chéret was the best-known artist of la belle époque (the beautiful era). Chéret is now called the father of the modern poster.
Chéret’s father, a poor typesetter, spent his money to get his son a 3-year apprenticeship as a lithographer. Chéret saw after his training that pictorial lithographs would replace typographic letterpress, so he started doing posters. He spent seven years in England in 1850s-60s, then returned to Paris with latest machinery that could print up to 10,000 posters an hour. He improved the lithography process by using larger stones. He also reestablished the practice of painting directly onto the stones, like Goya had done earlier in the century, as opposed to commissioning craftsmen to do the job.
His first poster, The Doe In The Wood, for a play starring Sandra Bernardt, rocked Paris and secured his fame. He had invented the visual poster. His style in the 1880s was thick black lines with primary colors. The women in his posters were called “the Chérette” by the masses. His favorite model, the Danish entertainer Charlotte Wiehe, was called “La Chérette.” Her looks were widely imitated. Forerunner of feminism: women were self-confident, liberated, enjoying their lives — perfect for the gay 90s. Chéret’s posters conveyed the spirit of the fin de siécle.
Many of his posters were over-sized (7-1/2′) so the people appear life-sized. He was huge in his own time, receiving honors & awards and critical & public acclaim. He made over 1,000 posters, nearly all for theatres and music halls. Retired to south of France to paint, and died at age 97. There is now a Chéret museum in Nice, France. Chéret helped launch the poster craze in France and America.
Chéret’s influence on Seurat are evident in Seurat’s paintings Le Chahut and Le Cirque, which have circus backgrounds and dancers instead of nature. Chéret designed the grand opening poster for the Moulin Rouge, in 1889. Lautrec, Theóphile Alexandre Steinlen and Pierre Bonnard followed in 1890s.
Lautrec was born wealthy and began drawing and painting like a dervish after breaking both his hips in an accident as a teenager. Lautrec got the job in 1891 to do a poster for the Moulin Rouge (The Red Mill) highlighting their new star, La Gouloue. He painted only 31 posters, mostly the characters of the clubs he inhabited. Lautrec took Chéret further, diving into the lives and minds of the subjects of his paintings. Chéret called Toulouse-Lautrec “a master.” A lot of people didn’t like Lautrec. They felt his subjects were ugly and disturbing, as opposed to the beauty of Chéret. He had a failed show at a gallery in London in 1898. However, insightful art critics saw that his paintings were caricatures.
Steinlein and Lautrec used posters to make social commentary. Steinlen started working in Paris at 22. Most widely known for his work with cats — you’ll rarely see a Steinlen poster without a cat. Steinlen did over 2,000 magazine covers, sheet music covers, book illustrations and posters. They had a big influence on Picasso. Art Nouveau design also has big Japanese influence, especially in Paris.
Swiss Eugéne Grasset was almost as popular as Chéret. His two-year project Histoire des Quatre Fils Aymon (History of the four Aymon sons) incorporated illustrations, type & format. He was known for his “coloring book style,” which featured black outlines with color. He used more subtle colors than Chéret. Grasset did textiles, windows, typefaces and more and actually claimed to dislike Art Nouveau. He loved medieval decorators and died at 37.
Alphone Mucha personified Art Nouveau from 1895-1900. He had a huge output, designing everything from posters, furniture, carpets and stained glass windows to two-dimensional patterns. He was born in 1860 in Bavaria and moved to Paris at 30. Like Chéret, he eventually abandoned posters to become a painter. Mucha’s best-known posters are also of Sarah Bernhardt.         She commissioned his 1st poster, Gismonda, 1894, which made his reputation in Paris. That poster was done at the last minute because he was the only one around in the studio at the time. He was so identified with the movement that l’art nouveau was often called le style Mucha. The spaghetti-like hair of his models was his signature style. Sarah Bernhardt, who didn’t like his Joan of Arc poster, nevertheless signed him to a six-year contract. He went to America, and then returned to his native Czechoslovakia to work mostly on his Slav Epic: 20 murals of Czech history. Mucha was one of the first people arrested and interrogated by the Gestapo in W.W. II; he died a few months later.