Jules Chéret (1836-1932) was the first master of Belle Époque poster art. After training in lithography in England, he became one of the first champions of new color lithographic methods. Taking after French rococo masters Fragonard and Watteau, frothy visions of young women in frivolity became his signature. He was awarded the Legion of Honor in 1890, and initiated the Maîtres d’Affiche collection in 1895.
In the 1880s, poster art was just emerging from the drabness of letterpress announcements showing little but black type. Chéret’s airy images were so startlingly bright and fresh on the walls of Paris that they attracted many admirers and earned his sprightly women the appellation of “Chérettes.” Note that this is the rare, unaltered version of the design that was rejected by censors. Apparently this quartet of mermaids was too alluring for the restrictionists who were just beginning to flex their puritanical muscles at this time. They didn’t accept the poster until Chéret lengthened their hair until it partly veiled their breasts. All known copies of this poster are unsigned. This is a two-sheet poster—and rare!
Maindron makes it clear that it was Chéret who invented “placards décoratifs, which are neither prints nor posters, but which contain a bit of both… There is nothing to say about these designs other than that they are perfect” (Maindron, p. 178-79). Abdy calls these four decorative panels “triumphs of color and printing” (Abdy, p. 31). Being freed from having to sell a product, Chéret lets his imagination soar—and these light-footed nymphs representing the Four Arts are the first clear examples of what was to adorn the walls of Paris for the next decade: the unabashedly hedonistic, carefree spirits that became known as “Chérettes.” (4)
More merry and carefree than its romantic counterparts, this poster for the Palais de Glace showcases ice skating in all its welcoming, wild abandon.
The eye mask does nothing to conceal the charm of this lovely reveler whose dazzle throws all other participants into shadowy insignificance. Not only was this delectable design used to promote the first grand masked ball of the 1896 season, but it was also utilized to call attention to various subsequent masked balls.
Chéret often incorporated characters from commedia dell’arte in his works; here, Polichinelle is the star of the show. Born in 1620, Polichinelle became a stock character in Neapolitan puppetry and has taken many guises throughout the centuries. Here, Chéret gives him a bright red costume that makes the dancing figure appear to burst right off the page. Behind him, we find his dancing companions awash in characteristic pastels.
Chéret was a masterful lithographer, but here he proves his mastery of painting as well. This intimate portrait of a young seated woman is carefully composed with daubs of oil which accumulate to form a lifelike and lovely personality. The woman smiles tenderly as she gazes off into the distance; her Victorian garments are represented in detail, down to the lacy frills and floral details on her sleeves.
“[Chéret’s] use of pastels—an art that was revived at the time as an allusion to the eighteenth century and was used notably in fin de siècle portraits of ladies—reveals the same brilliance of colour and bold, vivid harmonies in fine portraits of both men and women…” (Chéret/Pioneer, p. 44). Indeed, in this sensitive pastel drawing, Chéret proves his meticulous understanding of color and composition. The woman’s teal dress is reflected in the many blues of the impressionistic background, while her orange flower adds a strong dose of contrast. And while Chéret’s muses are often whimsical and ethereal, this contemplative model allows us to see his more discerning capabilities for portraiture.