History of poster art

Poster Collecting

by María Carmen Bernáldez


Posters have no date of invention. From the Egyptians with their hieroglyphic manifestos, until the emergence of the printing press, all towns and cities have used their walls and facades to communicate publicly their messages, yet without being able to repeat them mechanically.

In 1430, Gutenberg invented the printing press, a historical advance for the production of books, and in 1796, Aloys Senefelder invented a new printing technique: lithography, initially destined to print engravings. Seventy years later, most advanced countries in Europe discovered the usefulness of lithography as a means for advertising products and services through posters. The demand for posters grew and joined industry and commerce, creating a social phenomenon. At the turn of the century, the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century, posters reached its zenith.


Considering that a poster is the result of an artistic integration of a text and an image which target is to communicate a message, the origins of  posters in Spain goes back to the 18th century. An example of this is the bullfighting poster that presents a woodcut vignette and border and a lithographic text to announce a bullfight in Puerto de Santa María in 1782. Another later example, is the bullfighting poster Cádiz year 1874 that presents more vignettes, evolving to the importance of the image in the design. First Spanish lithographic posters are directly linked to the announcement of the traditional festivities. First lithographic colour posters date back to 1880, where the texts predominated over the images, and from 1900’s colour lithographic images became the protagonist of Spanish posters and invaded it’s surface.


The origins of posters in Europe are placed in 1866, when Jules Cheret (1836-1933) returned to Paris from London. At that time, London was the global industrial and expansion centre. Cheret had worked for seven years as an artist in a lithographic workshop in London, he learnt the technique of lithography applied to large sheets of paper. Upon arriving in Paris, he set up his own lithographic workshop specializing in the production of large posters. Throughout his 97 years of life he designed more than a thousand posters with his own and distinctive style.

Cheret was the starter of this new medium of commercial and industrial expression. He invaded the walls of Paris with posters. He painted weightless female figures suspended in the air, vaporous girls. He used strong and striking colours in order to capture the attention of the passers-by of the time. He literally monopolized the streets and advertisement posts of Paris. Cheret made an art gallery exhibited on Paris street’s walls. He marked an era and a fashion.

Cheret’s contemporary Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901) was the great innovator who combined a perfect synthesis between image and text, clearly marking the path of the future. In the short period of the 36 years of his life, there are 400 lithographs known, 31 of them are posters and possibly they are the most appreciated and valued today.

From these two great innovators most of the painters of the period were tempted by the new technique.

At the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century, an artistic movement called Art Nouveau developed in Paris, it occurred in architecture, painting, sculpture and decorative arts: furniture, lamps, curtains, jewellery, accessories, clothing … The intention of the movement was to create a new aesthetic, in which the inspiration of nature prevailed. Its greatest exponent was the Czech Alfonso Mucha. Art Nouveau characterized by its exquisite and delicate way of capturing designs, by its stylized female figures and by the use of curved lines.

His unique style influenced many illustrators of the time, including Spanish poster designers such as Alejandro de Riquer, Eulogio Varela, Santiago Rusiñol, and Ramón Casas.

Alejandro de Riquer, 1896

The Exhibition of Decorative Arts and Modern Industries was held in Paris in 1925, hence the artistic term Art Deco. This 1920-1939 movement left traces in all the art design fields: architecture, painting, sculpture, motor racing, interior design, fashion, jewellery … even in movies, as example the film Metropolis by Fritz Lang. Art Deco is the opposite of the sinuous, naturalistic curves of Art Nouveau. This art is based mainly on simplification, in its rectilinear and geometric style. The athletic and elegant male bodies and resolute women bold dressed stood out, women with garçon haircuts, smoking and participating in cocktails, denoted their liberation. The glamour of the 30´s reached its maximum splendour.

Spanish artists mastered perfectly this style and applied it to perfection in the creation of their posters. Federico Ribas, Rafael Penagos, Gaspar Camps, Enrique Estela Antón or Juan Miguel Sánchez are some artists that represent the paradigm of the Spanish Art Deco poster.

Later and to this day, posters have supported the different artistic trends: fauvism, constructivism, cubism, expressionism, surrealism, pop art, minimalism, hyperrealism … The most notable national and international artists have used their paintbrushes to create a poster: Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dalí, Joan Miró, Antoni Tapies, Miquel Barceló, Luis Gordillo, Andy Warhol, David Hockney … among hundreds of other outstanding painters.

Eduardo Arrollo, 1996