Posters have been produced since the printing press was invented in the 15th century. Until about 1800, however, posters were mainly text with sometimes a small illustration.

The invention of lithography, in 1798, made it much easier to include colour illustrations in posters. This, and the need to advertise the new mass-produced goods being produced as a result of the Industrial Revolution, led to a boom in poster production.

"Jane Avril" by Toulouse-Lautrec (1899)
“Jane Avril” by Toulouse-Lautrec (1899)

Posters in the first half of the 19th century were still straightforward with text predominating and illustration secondary. From 1867, Jules Cherat began producing posters in which the illustration was the dominant feature and text became a minor part, usually a few words at the bottom of the poster. Cherat’s illustrations were also different from the earlier style. Rather than straightforward, realistic illustrations, Cherat used idealised, romantic drawings.

Cherat’s style quickly became popular, not only for theatrical posters in which he specialised, but also for commercial advertisements. The vitality that this lent to poster art attracted major artists to the medium; the most important being Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.

Rather than the idealised, lyrical style of earlier posters, Toulouse-Lautrec’s painted real life scenes in an almost caricature style. He used large areas of flat colour and minimal text.

Art Nouveau artists, including Aubrey Beardsley, also created posters from the 1890s. These posters incorporated exotic stylised figures with elegant flowing lines. Two artists who produced particularly influential poster were Van de Verde, whose “Torop” poster in 1899 was the first to use a completely abstract design, and Pierre Bonnard, whose “La Revue Blanche” used text as part of the illustration intertwining the letters with the painted picture

"The Trumpet Calls" (Australian, 1914-18)
“The Trumpet Calls” (Australian, 1914-18)

The First World War brought an abrupt end to artistic posters. Instead, relatively crude, blunt propaganda posters were produced; the most famous example being James Montgomery Flagg’s “I Want You” sowing Uncle Sam pointing his finger at the viewer.

After the War, two new types of posters became prominent. The first travel poster had been produced by the London Transport Company in 1908 but it was not until the 1930s that they were commonly used by major travel companies. Movie posters also boomed as the popularity of films increased.

During the Second World War, forceful propaganda posters again predominated.. The principal innovation since the War has been the purely pictorial poster that relies entirely on illustration to convey its message.

Posters have been designed by such major artists as Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, Henri Matisse and Roy Lichtenstein.

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