The era around the end of the 19th Century and the beginning of the 20th Century was the high water mark for the art of poster design.
Technological innovations at the time allowed the use of mass-produced zinc plates instead of awkward and expensive lithographic stones to reproduce multiple images, and the artists could take advantage of multiple plates, each printing a different color ink and aligned in close registration, to produce beautifully colored images in quantities that made them suitable for distribution as posters.
This was also a landmark in that it began a social revolution that was at the heart of the Art Nouveau movement to produce egalitarian art, available to the masses and not just the monied elite (see my post on Alphonse Mucha).
Art posters are an almost forgotten art form, and represent a fascinating intersection of drawing, color and graphic design. The artists at the top of this form were those who excelled at all three skills, and the posters themselves are often astonishingly beautiful.
The university library of Lawrence University in Wisconsin, as part of their Digital Image Collections, has assembled an online collection of the Art of the Poster 1880-1918, an amazing treasure trove of beautiful Art Nouveau and other turn of the Twentieth Century posters.
The online collection at Lawrence is (at the moment) composed of 162 images and includes many famous, almost iconic images, including the poster for the first DADA exhibition, the original James Montgomery Flagg Uncle Sam “I Want You” Army recruiting poster, and Mucha’s poster for JOB Cigarette Papers that became famous and widely reproduced in the 1960′s.
There are posters for theatrical performances, expositions, burlesque, art exhibits, champagne, newspapers, magazines, cigarettes, safety matches, shoes, clothing, war bonds, books, cameras, typewriters, electric lamps, bicycles, biscuits and chocolate.
But the star here is Alphonse Mucha, who was the master of this form; and is well represented in the collection, including many of the beautiful posters for Sarah Bernhardt that made his reputation as poster artist.
His poster for Princess Hyacinta is a stunning work, that will reward close study.
The library has chosen an image zooming feature with a somewhat awkward implementation, requiring page reloads, and apparently limited to a set grid of enlargement area choices instead of a continuous drag. A small quibble, though, in light of the wonderful collection of images they have prepared and made available online.
Once you select an image from the browsing thumbnails, you can click on an area of the image to enlarge that area, or modify enlargement levels and pan across the image with arrow controls at top left.
Clicking again on the enlarged image will take you in another level of magnification, until you reach 100%, which looks like it may be close to life size in some cases.
Best of all, however, is the easy-to-miss link at the top of the detail pages, just under “Art of the Poster”, for “export image” that allows you to download a full-resolution image (or smaller if you choose). It can take a while, even on a high-bandwidth connection, as the hi-res images are wonderfully large and can be 3 or 4mb in size. (If the display of the downloading image doesn’t appear right away, give it a few seconds.)
Time sink warning: If you like beautiful Art Nouveau posters, and there are some amazing ones in this collection, you could be here for hours, especially if you start downloading high-resolution images.
(Image above, clockwise from left: Alphonse Mucha, Louis John Rhead, Manuel Orazi, Maxfield Parrish)