Les Maîtres de l'Affiche series was the direct result of international interest in posters and poster artists that reached its height in the mid-1890s in Europe and America. The masterworks of artists like Cheret, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Mucha transformed commercial advertisements into an esteemed art form worthy of public admiration and scholarly pursuit. Along with the decade's wave of poster journals, books, and exhibitions came an interest in collecting the artworks for personal enjoyment and study. But the sheer size of posters made storage awkward and often impossible.
Les Maîtres de l’Affiche series was the direct result of international interest in posters and poster artists that reached its height in the mid-1890s in Europe and America. The masterworks of artists like Cheret, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Mucha transformed commercial advertisements into an esteemed art form worthy of public admiration and scholarly pursuit. Along with the decade’s wave of poster journals, books, and exhibitions came an interest in collecting the artworks for personal enjoyment and study. But the sheer size of posters made storage awkward and often impossible.
Les Maîtres de l’Affiche (“Masters of the Poster”) series was born of this dilemma. By offering subscribers smaller editions of the era’s most important posters, collectors and enthusiasts were able to build miniature archives of posters from around the world. The complete Maîtres de l’Affiche series included 256 expertly produced small lithographic plates representing the best of the Belle Epoque. During its five-year run from late 1895 to 1900, the series was hugely successful. It continues to be popular today, offering experts and novices alike a convenient and dazzling overview of some of the finest achievements in poster art.
Jules Cheret, the inventor of the three-stone lithographic process and virtual founder of the modern poster, created the Maîtres de l’Affiche collection. As early as the 1860s, Cheret’s magnificent creations brought elegance and color to the urban landscape of Paris and soon generated an international industry. By 1866, Cheret opened his print shop, which would eventually become a branch of the large French publisher Imprimerie Chaix. His role as artistic director at Chaix provided Cheret with the platform and resources necessary to launch the Maîtres series.
The first four plates were released in December of 1895. They featured posters by Cheret, Toulouse-Lautrec, Julius Price, and Dudley Hardy. The series would continue for a total of sixty months, ending in November of 1900 — truly spanning the peak of the poster trend. In the end, there were a total of 240 regular plates and 16 bonus plates.
Les Maîtres de l’Affiche series operated much like a contemporary magazine. A poster enthusiast had the option of purchasing the current month’s four plates from a specialized dealer, or he could choose to subscribe to the series for the length of one year.
The first plate of every month was a poster by Cheret himself, making him the most frequently represented artist in the series. Cheret’s 60 regular and seven bonus plates comprise nearly 25-percent of the entire collection. All in all, 97 artists from around the world were represented in Les Maîtres de l’Affiche series, though more than half of them were French. A range of fashionable styles is evident in the collection, including the classic Art Nouveau of Mucha and Livemont, the illustrations of Penfield and Willette, and the graphic qualities of Toulouse-Lautrec and Bonnard.
The original, full-sized posters and the Maîtres editions they inspired, were never considered in competition with one another. Instead, each was regarded as two entirely different entities. While posters were large and bold, the prints were beloved for their exquisite size and detail. Also, posters were printed on inexpensive newsprint due to their anticipated short lifespan.
Prints, on the other hand, were made on very fine paper using printing techniques too intricate for larger items. Print collecting was a trendy hobby well before posters became fashionable. Cheret introduced the modern poster; however, it was not until Toulouse-Lautrec’s Moulin Rouge in 1891 that posters became an art form deemed worthy of attention. In many ways, the Maîtres series is the successful marriage of the poster and print trends.
In his preface to Volume I of the Maîtres series, Roger Marx, a notable 19th-century art historian, and critic, described the streets of Paris as ‘a museum in the breeze.’ He wrote that ‘the poster has a precarious fate… it gleams in the sun, fades in the mist, dangles sadly in shreds, [and] sways in the wind after a heavy shower.’ Although short-lived in its purpose, the poster was saved by its beauty and charm. Les Maîtres de l’Affiche, in its convenient format, has indeed stood the test of time.