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Works by:

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

Alphonse Mucha

Jules Chéret

Leonetto Cappiello

PAL (Jean de Paléologue)

A. M. Cassandre

Paul Colin

Bernard Villemot

Théophile Gustave Steinlen

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Leonetto Cappiello
(1875 - 1942)

Born in the Italian resort town of Livorno, Cappiello ( 1875 – 1942) had a natural talent for drawing, and his first ambition was to be a great painter. He started studying art with a painter’s career in mind, but meanwhile, purely as a hobby, he would make a quick sketch of anybody who caught his attention – relatives, home town characters, an occasional interesting tourist. Soon, he found that these quick caricatures were always favorably received, and by the time he was 21, he was able to make a little money by having the best of these homespun drawings published in booklet form.

That may not have swayed him in itself, but two years later, in 1898, he took a trip to Paris to visit his older brother who happened to be working there at the Stock Exchange. Leonetto found Paris intoxicating, and wanted to put off returning to his sleepy little seaside hometown for a while; the only way to do it, of course, was by finding a way to support himself.

Why not utilize his gift for caricature again? His brother told him that various magazines might pay a good price for caricatures of celebrities, particularly ones that have not been done to death already. Since that was true of most of the regular Paris stars, Leonetto approached two famous visitors who were just then staying in town, and who, being fellow Italian, might be willing to give an untried kid a break: actor Ermete Novelli and composer Giacomo Puccini. They obliged, and Leonetto promptly sold the sketches to Le Rire; they were so well received that within weeks, he became the favored caricaturist of theater and cabaret stars of Paris.

One of the major reasons for the quick acceptance of Cappiello was the fact that his caricatures were never offensive: where other caricaturists would grossly distort their subjects’ facial features and hold them up for ridicule, Cappiello used only subtle exaggeration to spotlight their outstanding characteristics. This gave him access to the one group of performers who previously fought tooth and nail not to be caricatured: the prominent ladies of the stage. When they saw that he meant them no harm, even the most famous names of the day – Sarah Bernhardt, Réjane, Jeannie Granier – were suddenly willing to sit still for caricatures, and the young man from Livorno became the darling of the foremost beauties of Paris.

This prompted Alexandre Natanson, co-publisher of La Revue Blanche, one of the magazines that had been using his sketches, to commission Cappiello to publish a portfolio of these drawings under the title “Nos Actrices” ( “Our Actresses”), which came out in 1899 and launched his in career in earnest.

But he might have remained a professional illustrator if one of the editors to whom he routinely submitted sketches had not asked him to prepare a poster for a new humor magazine he was launching, Le Frou-Frou. Cappiello used a simple caricature in his usual style – a can-can girl kicking up her skirts – but now he had to use color, so he opted for a plain yellow background and a dab of red on the pantaloons peeking out from under the petticoats.

The poster, prepared so quickly in such a offhand way, made a provocative splash on the billboards that no passer-by could resist. Instinctively, Cappiello hit on the right formula: create an eye-catching character and make a bold, loud statement – and everything else becomes immaterial. It brought him immediate further offers from various advertisers, and made him aware of the enormous power of effective communication: he found the field in which he would labor the rest of his life.

His technique evolved fundamentally from that of British posterists like Hassel, Hardy and the Beggarstaff Brothers, who used simple drawings and flat colors – only Cappiello added dynamic zest and dramatic impact they had never dreamed of. The designs, for the first few attempts, are firmly rooted in his caricature style; but gradually, he frees his imagination and begins to develop a poster language even more compelling.

With few exceptions, Cappiello used two printer-agents for his work: up to World War I, it was Vercasson, where he developed the principles of his style; after that, it was Devambez, where he continued to apply them with an even greater flair and bolder imagination. The key to his approach was always image association – the idea that you don’t really remember the image of the product itself, but the image of something that is associated with the product. Thus, if you are shown the picture of an old-fashioned phonograph with a listening horn, you don’t think of any particular brand as it could be any of a dozen names; but if you see a small white dog listening to it attentively, the brand name “RCA Victor” will flash to your mind instantly, involuntarily, because the association had been firmly established there. Cappiello was the first who thoroughly understood this, and he applied it with commendable diligence in about a thousand posters.

He had an active career which lasted approximately 40 years, during which time he produced an average of two posters per month. Although in such quantity it is inevitable that certain themes and concepts are repeated continually, it is to Cappiello’s credit that his inventiveness never flagged, and he was always able to come up with new ways to shock us, startle us out of our pedestrian complacency, and ultimately delight us.

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