Published on .

The beginnings of both commercial illustration and modern art, closely intertwined as they are, can be found in the late 1880s in Paris. In 1881, a new law in Paris gave greater leeway to those wishing to paste up ads around the city both by prohibiting the defacement of posters and by giving building owners more rights in the licensing of their walls for commercial purposes. This legislation, along with the improvement of lithographic processes, paved the way for the creation and proliferation of posters.

First and foremost among poster pioneers was Jules Chéret, who began producing color lithographic posters in 1866. Mr. Chéret used lithography, which until then had been used mainly in reproduction, to make original designs. These were expressive images of a fancifully conceived Parisian nightlife awash with delicate veils of color.

Mr. Chéret's work had a significant impact on the art world of the time, and on the artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, who adapted Mr. Chéret's fluid lines and bold, flat silhouettes in his own, more experimental theater posters. Mr. Toulouse-Lautrec, Pierre Bonnard, the Swiss poster artist Théophile Alexandre Steinlen and the Czech artist Alphonse Mucha all contributed to a movement in poster art away from realism and toward a graphic interpretation of form.

That movement was mirrored in Germany in the illustrations of Thomas Theodor Heine; in Vienna in Gustav Klimt's paintings; and in England in the Arts & Crafts movement and the work of the artist William Morris, illustrator Aubrey Beardsley and the poster artist duo known as the Beggarstaff brothers (James Pryde and William Nicholson).

Illustration in the U.S.

Most noteworthy among U.S. illustrators of the time were Howard Pyle, Maxfield Parrish and N.C. Wyeth. Mr. Pyle, best known for his theatrically composed children's book illustrations, educated legions of reputable illustrators while teaching at the Art Students League in New York, at the Drexel Institute in Philadelphia and at his own summer school in Chadds Ford, Pa. Mr. Parrish became one of the best-loved commercial artists of the century; an ad he produced in 1918 for the Fisk Rubber Co. featured a pair of tunic-wearing pages presenting a tire to a king on his throne.

N.C. Wyeth, another of Mr. Pyle's well-known pupils, also retained the high-contrast, imaginative approach of fin de siecle Europe, but his subject matter was usually rooted in a world of adventure, often American in flavor. In 1907, he created a series of ads for Cream of Wheat cereal set in the American Wild West.

Other illustrators who helped define the image the U.S. had of itself both before and during World War I were Charles Dana Gibson, Joseph Christian Leyendecker and James Montgomery Flagg. Each was known for the characters he invented for advertising- Mr. Gibson for his "Gibson Girls" and, in the 1920s, Mr. Leyendecker for his Arrow Collar Man. Mr. Flagg is best known as the creator of (and model for) Uncle Sam in the 1917 "I Want You" armed forces recruitment poster.

Mr. Flagg, along with Messrs. Gibson, Leyendecker and other leading illustrators such as Howard Chandler Christy, were recruited as propagandists during World War I. Mr. Gibson headed the Division of Pictorial Publicity under the federal Committee on Public Information.

The poster artist A.M. Cassandre helped translate new ideas developed in Europe into advertising and among his contemporaries best understood the future role of commercial art. "Painting is an end in itself," he wrote in 1933. "The poster is only a means to an end, a means of communication." The Ukraine-born artist, who worked in Paris in the late 1920s and early '30s, produced ads for the French railway and for Dubonnet, among others, that gave modernism a more accessible twist.

This style, somewhat analogous with Art Deco, contained imagery consisting of clean, much-simplified shapes in a limited range of colors, often based on the forms found in machinery. The U.S. artist McKnight Kauffer, who worked in England in the 1920s creating posters for the London Underground, shared this sensibility, which continued to shape his work throughout the following two decades.

In the U.S. in the 1920s, variations on the Art Deco style appeared in the work of Rockwell Kent, whose engravings and lithographs decorated ads for Rolls-Royce and Steinway & Sons. But it was John Held Jr. who most effectively defined the era with his cartoonish, colorful flappers and college boys. Mr. Held also worked for Lorillard Tobacco Co.'s Old Gold cigarettes (from ad agency Lennen & Mitchell) on a campaign themed "Not a cough in a carload."

In 1914, Norman Rockwell began enhancing ads with his paintings and by the 1920s he was creating full-color ads for the likes of Grape-Nuts cereal and Fisk Tire Co. In the early 1940s, as the U.S. entered World War II, Mr. Rockwell contributed his talents to posters for the war effort.

World War II

In the 1940s, McClelland Barclay, who was killed during the war when his ship was torpedoed, made illustrations for Texaco and General Motors Corp. in a painterly style, peopled with the well-heeled, sporty and young. George Petty used an airbrush to create his trademark pin-up girl, who appeared in ads for Jantzen swimsuits. Opposing this realistic trend was the work of the cartoonists James Thurber and William Steig ("So long, Junior. I warned you if you didn't use Lifebuoy, I'd drop you from the act," says a stern trapeze artist in Mr. Steig's 1944 soap ad, as he lets his less-than-fresh-smelling partner fall free).

Behind the front lines of prominent artists in advertising, however, there labored a small army of highly specialized illustrators who produced the majority of print artwork. In the automobile field, for example, a whole network of art studios, suppliers and illustrators became a Detroit mini-industry.

At the war's end, a light stylistic touch predominated in the U.S., though often that touch was provided by European artists. In 1951, French painter Raoul Dufy enhanced American ads for De Beers Consolidated Mines with a continental seaside scene; Austrian-born Ludwig Bemelmans made whimsical ads for Walker's Deluxe bourbon around the same time; and even Salvador Dali, in the late 1940s, lent a surrealistic yet decorative flavor to ads for Bryan nylons.

Less sophisticated but still playful were American Peter Hawley's ads for Jantzen and Bell Telephone as well as the cartoon-style drawings of Whitney Darrow Jr. for Post Toasties cereal and Simoniz floor wax.

Rise of photography

In the 1950s and early '60s, however, photography became advertising's preferred form of imagery. The period also saw revolutions in art and style that were expressed in the work of the visually savvy and successful illustrators/designers Milton Glaser and Seymour Chwast, co-founders in 1954 of Push Pin Studios; in the posters of Jaqui Morgan; and in the early advertising work of Andy Warhol, who began his career drawing shoes for I. Miller & Sons in the early 1950s.

Mr. Warhol well understood the dynamic and convoluted relationship between art and advertising. His Campbell's Soup can series turned the idea of art for product promotion on its head: Ad and art became indistinguishable from each other.

Poster art saw something of a revival in the late 1960s and early '70s, with the concert and theater posters of artists such as David Edward Byrd and Bob Massé. Their work, along with that of Peter Max, harked back to Art Nouveau posters of the 1890s.

Although by then the era when illustration ruled advertising was passing, commercial art continues to thrive. With the Internet offering new venues for visual art, it seems that illustration's variety of applications will continue to expand.

Most Popular
In this article: