French Opera Posters

December 18, 2011 § 2 Comments

Between 1868 and 1930, Parisian music publishers Hengel & Cie and G. Hartmann commissioned fifty-three opera posters, designed by some of the finest artists of the time, including  Jules Chéret, Alfred Choubrac and Eugène Grasset. This exquisite series  of posters has been collected for years. In 1976, Dover published a book, now quite hard to come by, explaining the fifty-three plates.

These posters were commissioned at a time when the avant garde and the establishment fought over the arts. While tremendous changes in the arts were already taking place, being experimental was still rather risqué. Some musical forms, such as music-halls, cabarets, and operettas, were trying to appeal to the growing masses and middle-class, operas remained the privilege of the aristocracy and bourgeoisie. Focusing on exoticism, ancient myths, legends and love stories of the past, they represented a rather classical and conservative position towards the arts.

The style of the French opera posters mirrors this position.

A photograph of "Thais" Poster

Original Thais Poster by Manuel Orazi, 1894

In Thais for example, Manuel Orazi chooses to imitate the shape and color of a crumbling papyrus. The use of gold inks, dear to Art Nouveau artists, along with the extremely precise details, add a precious feeling to the piece. Orazi’s depiction of the Egyptian Thais is typical of orientalism, a trend presenting the Orient as a land of treasures, mysteries, and exoticism. The story of the opera itself is rather classical, as it depicts a beautiful, “wild,” pagan woman, Thais, who converts to Christianity under the advice of a monk. As she lays ill in a convent in the desert, the monk confesses his carnal love for her, yet she resists, repents and dies a saint.

A photograph of "Griselidis" Poster

Original Griselidis Poster by Flameng, 1901

Flameng’s Griselidis also tries to imitate an older type of illustrations: medieval illuminations. The use of medieval typefaces, the depiction of the devil as a gargoyle, along with the sea and the ships in the background, contribute to create a medieval atmosphere suited to the legend of Griselda. Griselda was a lower-class, beautiful and virtuous woman, who married a marquis. Her husband, so sure of her, accepts the Devil’s proposition to test her fidelity. Here again, virtue triumphs as Griselda withstands all temptation.

A photograph of Ariane Poster

Original "Ariane" Poster by Maignan, 1906

Maignan’s Ariane is also emblematic of a classical art form of the time: the historical painting. Maignan was a historical painter, depicting classical scenes that would then be hung in salons. Although the frieze at the bottom of the piece is highly reminiscent of art nouveau, Ariane’s expression along with the folds of her toga recall ancient Greek statues, and conjures up the myth of Ariane. Ariane helped Theseus kill the Minotaur and escape Daedalus’ labyrinth, and then eloped with him. He then abandoned her on an island, where she was later found and wedded by the god Dionysus. The poster shows Ariane in a typical tragic posture, as Theseus’ ship sails away.

A photograph of "Cendrillon" Poster

Original Cendrillon Poster by Bertrand, 1899

When the opera for Cendrillon (Cinderella) premiered, critics called it “a treat for the eyes.” The same can be said about this gorgeous poster by Bertrand. Although the style is definitely typical of the Art Nouveau movement, Bertrand chooses to portray Cendrillon in quite an original, unexpected way. Her dress and tiara make her look like an oriental princess, the frieze at the bottom with a detail of the shoe recalls the fairytale. The movement present throughout the piece adds to its magical, enchanting feel.

Come take a look at those rare treats in our showroom in Berkeley, at 2201 Fourth Street (corner of Allston Way). We will be open Tuesdays and Thursdays in January, and by appointment.

You can also find opera posters and more art-related pieces on our website:

This post authored by VEP Intern
Candie Sanderson
Student at la Sorbonne Nouvelle
Edited by VEP Owner
Elizabeth Norris

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