DECORATIVE AND evocative, poster art of the last 100 years has been produced by some of the finest and most imaginative of artists. In the 17th and 18th centuries, posters were used mostly for political propaganda and government announcements. In the final decades of the last century, a whole new area opened to the poster artist: advertisements, either for publicizing events or merchandise. There were, and are, many popular special categories: sports, transportation (ships, airplanes and railroads), theaters, cafes, movies, the circus.
In Europe, the golden age of the poster was at the turn of the century, in the period known as the Belle Epoque. Among many who created imaginative posters were artists such as Jules Cheret, Alphonse Mucha, Aubrey Beardsley and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. The output of Jules Cheret was prodigious, and his work for advertisers (cigarette papers, aperitifs, theaters) richly documents the period and its interests: the cabaret, the music hall, the opera, the ballet--all symbolized by his conventionally pretty girls and vivid use of color.
Toulouse-Lautrec, in his relatively few posters, saw the reality of life during the Belle Epoque that went beyond its appealing surface. In an instant, for example, his brutally realistic poster of La Goulue can call back all those glorious, impossible years in a remarkably vivid way.