History of the Poster

Zoologischer Garten Zoo Vintage Poster

Angela Lippert at Poster House defines a poster as “a temporary promotion of an idea, product, or event put up in a public space for mass consumption”. 

Posters date back further than you may think. One of the earliest forms of visual advertising, they were often used in ancient Greece and Rome to make official announcements and make legal texts accessible to the general public. These early posters were placed on large white wooden panels and were usually placed in town squares to ensure as many people as possible saw them. By the 16th and 17th centuries, with the development of the printing process, posters had evolved to a combination of text and pictures to advertise goods sold by tradesmen and merchants, and to entice spectators to upcoming events, such as Shakespeare plays, circuses, and fairs. 

Lithographic posters became relatively popular in the early 1800s. Lithography, a printing process invented in the 1790s in Germany by Alois Senefelder, enabled artists to create metal and wood engravings with simple designs. Color was possible – these lithographs were known as chromolithographs – but the process was laborious, time-consuming, and expensive. Chromolithographs were impractical for mass production, so plain black-and-white monochromatic lithographs became the norm. 

All this changed during the Belle Époque (1880 – 1914) period thanks to French artist Jules Chéret. 



Chéret is widely considered to be the father of the modern poster. He began his lithographic training at thirteen and studied the process for almost twenty years. While working as a designer for perfume manufacturer Eugène Rimmel, Chéret experimented with various color techniques and developed a quicker and more cost-effective lithographic process. Known as the three stone process, Chéret simplified chromolithography by using primary colours, which he made semi-transparent so he could create different tones and shades, and used softer, watercolor-like brush strokes. He also changed the chromolithograph’s standard design from plain to expressive. Chéret drew freehand instead of using stencils, reduced the amount of text, and made what remained more elaborate. He increased the amount of space his vibrant illustrations occupied in his posters. 

His technique was revolutionary. After opening his own lithographic printing firm in Paris, Chéret published the first book on poster art and organized the first-ever poster exhibition. This is a key moment in art history because it ignited an era of posters being accepted, celebrated, and respected as fine art. The posters of this period were influenced by the rising Art Nouveau movement, whose admiration of Byzantine and Pre-Raphaelite art inspired French artists to incorporate a beautiful floral, ornate style into their work. The influx of ukiyo-e woodblock prints from the newly reopened Japan was also a significant influence on French posters.

With French artists such as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Eugène Grasset, Pierre Bonnard, Louis Anguetin, and Adolphe Willette engaging in this new, expressive kind of art, posters soon dominated the working-class streets of Paris. The city’s urban streets became known as “the poor man’s picture gallery”. 

Posters increased in popularity around the globe thanks to Chéret’s new techniques. The posters produced by each country bore their unique cultural preoccupations. While cabarets and cafes were popular in France, posters from Italy celebrated fashion and opera, posters from Britain celebrated pastimes such as attending the circus and riding bicycles, and posters from Spain showcased their love of festivals and bullfighting. Each country’s individual style was also expressed in their posters. German posters were influenced by their prosperous medieval period and their culture’s directness, and Dutch posters expressed their culture’s desire for neatness and restraint. Many countries were also influenced by Modernism and incorporated its abstract style into their posters. 

This period, 1880 – 1914, is widely considered to be the Golden Age of the poster. 

By the First World War and the Bolshevik Revolution, posters had become propagandistic tools. Inspired by the French Revolution, didactic posters were designed to raise funds, recruit soldiers, and instil hatred of enemies. The Bolsheviks exploited the poster’s ability to evoke emotion by creating bold, geometric illustrations, which would later inspire the posters of Communist movements in Cuba and China. 

Posters reverted to advertisements in the 1920s. They exploited the modernity of Art Deco, Cubism, Futurism, Expressionism, and Dadaism to showcase technology, fashion, and music. Jazz posters, in particular, were infused with modern angular styles which were far removed from naturalism. 

While the poster was used as a propagandist tool during the Second World War, attitudes towards it had changed by the 1950s. The Baby Boomers did not see them as art and declared them a public nuisance, making their streets look dingy. Knowing they had to compete with unforeseen competitors such as television, poster makers adapted and embraced the new decade's emerging consumer and corporate culture. Posters from the 1950s are characterized by two styles. The first is fanciful, bright colors designed to encourage playfulness; this style was popular in travel posters. The second is sensible and orderly informative posters, inspired by the cool, sophisticated, and no-nonsense style of the stark Bauhaus movement. Posters in Eastern Europe were fond of this style and applied it to their social realist art posters. 


Posters played a crucial role in the rebellious 1960s. This was a decade defined by social and cultural change; human rights and anti-war protests were rising. Posters were used to spread messages of peace and love through Expressionist, Surrealist, and often psychedelic art, and new, innovative styles such as Pop Art. The psychedelic poster, inspired by the madness of Surrealism and decorative excessiveness of Art Nouveau, was incredibly popular, as were music posters. Modern posters, which broadly include any poster from the 1970s to the present day, apply various kinds of art depending on their purpose. 

There has been a resurgence in recent years of the popularity of vintage posters. The work of Chéret, de Toulouse-Lautrec, Baschant, and Toorop has become very desirable and is in high demand, particularly among Millennials and Gen-Z. 


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