On a cool blue night in Chicago, streetlights twinkle across the stained glass windows of the Richard H. Driehaus Museum—an old Gilded Age mansion turned art museum, ornately silhouetted against the backdrop of skyscrapers. At its stone-flanked entrance stands a suited doorman who opens the way to the museum’s latest exhibition: L’Affichomania: The Passion for French Posters.
The museum, founded in 2003 by Chicago philanthropist, Richard H. Driehaus preserves the beauty of the past while sharing its rich history and overarching relevance in architecture, art, and design.
L’Affichomania features original pieces from Richard H. Driehause’s personal collection of French poster art from the late nineteenth century, dating 1875-1910. Curated by Jeannine Falino to contain 45 special selections from Driehaus’s extensive collection, L’Affichomania showcases the works of Jules Chéret, Eugène Grasset, Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and Alphonse Mucha, all Grand Masters of the era.
The posters themselves advertise popular culture during what was known as the Belle Époque: an era marked by extravagance, frivolity, and the glamor of the arts. They display flamboyant dancers, vivacious women, colorful social scenes (such as those found in the famous Moulin Rouge), and stage performers including La Goulue and Loie Fuller. They also advertise commercial products such as the bicycle and the infamously intoxicating Punch Grassot. What began as advertising was soon recognized as an art form all on its own. Depicted through swooning lines and bold colors, the works of L’Affichomania present stylized vignettes of the Belle Époque in the eyes of the artists who created them.
Walking trough the Driehaus Museum is like stepping into the past: its rooms are adorned in lavish nineteenth century furnishings; fireplaces glow beneath marble mantles; elegant statues reach towards gleaming tile walls and sparkling stained glass ceilings—all part of the Driehause’s permanent collection. The museum even brought in a pointed Parisian kiosque, used to display flyers, especially for this exhibition.
It is opening night of L’Affichomania and the Driehaus Museum hums with the sound of live accordion music and the talk of gazing guests. Its main rooms are filled with stunning ceiling-high posters and intimate sketches, each showcasing an artist of exhibition—tonight, they are the stars everyone has come to see.
Featured artist, Jules Chéret is known for his painterly lithographs of dancers and stage performers. His colorful posters show stars such as Loie Fuller (a native of the Chicago suburb of Hinsdale), who performed as a dancer in Paris in the 1890s (pictured below right). Chéret’s product advertisements even have a theatrical quality. His Le Punch Grassot poster, advertising the intoxicating alcoholic concoction, shows a woman bearing a serving tray with a ballet-postured arm, chin thrown to the air as the layers of her dress swirl into the composition.
The boldly delicate works of Eugène Grasset feature poised young women often accompanied by flowers and filigreed pant life. Smaller in scale than many of the exhibition’s other pieces, many of Grasset’s works were intended as home adornments, creating intimate experiences of beauty and grace with simple color schemes and decorative renderings reminiscent of medieval times. His advertisements, such as those promoting the bicycle, carry with them the same aesthetic. Cycles & Automobiles (pictured above) depicts a poised and independent woman, thoughtfully holding a clover as she strolls along with her bicycle.
The work of Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen is characterized by his use of bold colors, subtle humors, and his association to the avant-garde. Steinlen is famous for his Le Chat Noir poster (pictured above right), advertising the popular Montmartre cabaret. Dominated by a velvety black cat (referencing seductive female performers) contrasted by an ornate red halo, Le Chat Noir embodies elements of the bohemian cabaret which served as a venue for forward artistic expressions signature of the avant-garde of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec is known for his use of primary color schemes and depiction of nightlife in popular social settings such as the Moulin Rouge. Included in this exhibition is his Moulin Rouge: La Goulue (pictured above left), a color lithograph of the flamboyant French can-can dancer known as La Goulue, meaning “the gluton”. Highlighted in white, yellow, and red, she is surrounded by a dark audience of frill seekers clad in curling feathers and heighty top hats.
The gallant line work of Alphonse Mucha depicts goddess-like women cast in airy colors and metallic accents. He portrays stars such as actress, Sarah Bernhardt (pictured left) in powerfully elegant postures, heightened by an air of extravagance and idolization. Mucha’s work is signature of the Art Nouveau style, which focused on organic forms, decoration, and idealized beauty.
The vibrancy of the Belle Époque radiates through the halls of the Driehaus museum, exuding the very essence of the era through its stunning display of French Poster art. Through these works, we gain a glimpse into a world of novelty, extravagance, and the overwhelming grandeur of the arts—it is something truly magical.
L’Affichomania: The Passion for French Posters runs from February 11th 2017 to January 7th 2018 at the Richard M. Driehaus Museum (40 East Erie Street). Admission is $20 for adults, $12.50 for seniors (65+), $10 for students (with valid I.D.), $10 for youth (6-12 years), and free for children 5 and under . The museum is open Tuesday–Sunday, 10 a.m.–5 p.m. You can contact the museum by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 312-482-8933. For more information, visit the Richard H. Driehaus Museum website.
All photos courtesy of Richard H. Driehaus Museum.