The History of Les Maitres de l'Affiche

La Belle Epoque

"There was nothing exclusive about the 'joie de vivre' that swept Paris, at a delirious pace, out of the 19th century into the 20th. As Victor Hugo had observed, the city lived by, and for, the whole human race. Haussman's great boulevards had opened up a spacious stage where Paris made a spectacle of herself by day and night. Outdoors and indoors the walls of buildings flowered with posters that took their themes from the passing show of 'La Vie Parisenne.' Advertising never new happier days. The most ephemeral of the arts has left us with a vision of the 'good old days' that vanished forever in the gunsmoke of 1914. Those gay nineties and naughty noughts that will always be remembered as 'La Belle Epoque.'(The beautiful era)" (Horizon p. 97)


Streets of Paris

Printing House



"It was Jules Cheret (French, 1836-1932) whose unique combination of artistic, technical and entrepreneurial talents was to pave the way for a true poster industry. After Cheret opened his own print shop in Paris in1866, his work continued to inspire emulators in Europe and America. From 1881 on, his shop operated as a branch of the large Chaix firm (Imprimerie Chaix - pronounced 'shecks').


Imprimerie Chaix (The Printer)

"By the 1890s the streets of every great metropolis were enlivened by large colourful posters (see The Great Poster Movement). The poster had not only caught the fancy of the broad public, but its best examples were already being regarded as works of art (specifically, as fine prints) to be exhibited, reviewed in journals, collected and reprinted in a manageable form. In the last five years of the century, the Imprimerie Chaix was to play great part in codifying, hallowing and perpetuating the ebullient period of 'La Belle Epoque.' It was in those years that the firm published "Les Maitres de l'Affiche" (Masters of the Poster) reduced lithographic versions, in authentic colours, of the best posters of Europe and America, by more than 90 great artists, posters that bring the period to life." (Appelbaum p.iii)


Alain Weill, an authority in the field of poster history, points out that posters in this series had major appeal, in part, due to their manageable size: "At the time posters posed a problem which, moreover, has still not been solved, of how to keep, preserve and enjoy a collection consisting of very large size posters which one has to preserve rolled or flat in some large cabinet...("Les Maitres de l'Affiche") provided a reduction of the most valued and the most widely known posters." (Masters p. 4)


The Publication

The "Les Maitres de l'Affiche" series was offered as a subscription series to collectors. Every month for 60 months, from December 1895 through November 1900, subscribers received by mail, 4 loose sheets (Maitres) with a cover sheet. It was sold in Paris for 2.50 francs for one month's subscription, (4 Maitres) and for 27 francs for 12 months (48 maitres), plus special (bonus) plates (see Special plates). Maitre's were never issued in a book form, but a binding of the 12 months Maitres was offered to subscribers, at the end of the year, with a beautiful hardcover design by Paul Berthon, for 8 Francs.


Maitre stamp


Maitre full sheet


The "Maitres de l'Affiche," were issued as separate numbered sheets, referred to as "plates" (PL). They were numbered, with the printers name "Imprimerie Chaix," in the margin at the bottom left hand corner, "PL.1" to "PL.240." In the margin at the bottom right hand corner of each, is a blind embossed stamp (see above) from a design of Cheret's (Sp.PL.1) (see above). Each overall plate measures approximately 11 3/8 in. x 15 3/4 in. (29cm x 40cm). The actual poster image varies in size within the sheet, as the larger version posters were printed in varied sizes. Therefore, each has a margin (border) around the actual poster image.


The smaller format and the fact the "Maitres" were a paid subscription series, allowed Imprimerie Chaix to use the latest state of the art printing techniques, not normally used in the large format posters due to cost. (see "Poster Printing," The Great Poster Movement). A very high quality of paper was used, were as the large format posters were usually printed on lesser quality newsprint, due to cost and a short expected life span. This explains why the quality of the printing, in the "Maitres de l'Affiche," usually far exceeds that of their larger counterparts.


Alain Weill, notes that a month's offerings (four Maitres) could be had at the same price as an original poster by Toulouse-Lautrec, Mucha or the other greats of the poster era, being sold through print dealers at the time: "This is not at all surprising since the larger posters were printed in quantity on ordinary paper and, to boot, the one-time art and plate costs were assumed by the company whose product it advertised; the dealers paid printers only for the overrun they wished to acquire. Hence, we must consider it normal that "Les Maitres de l'Affiche," specially produced by means of lithography on quality paper, was offered for sale at the price of an original poster. The people did not perceive these two types of products as being in competition. They were infatuated with small prints and with this kind of compilation" (Masters p. 5).






The Special Plates

 In addition to the 240 posters, Special plates (or bonus plates) were issued to subscribers. There were a total of 16 Special plates (see above), which were sent over the five years, each December, each June, and March and September of the final three years. These were not posters, but unique original lithographs done exclusively for the "Maitres de l'Affiche" series. They are rendered as finished drawings, with only a hint of colour in most (see above). With Cheret designing seven of the 16, as well as two by Steinlen, two by Willette, and single designs by Ibels, de Feure, Crafty, Berthon and Leandre. With no product or service to advertise in the Special plates, the artist's were able to demonstrate the essence of their skill and creativity, and create some of the most beautiful image of the entire series.


The Artists

Jules Cheret was the artistic director of the "Imprimerie Chaix." He dominated the series, with one in every four Maitres by him, the first in each monthly instalment, and 7 of the Special plates, a total of 67. With over 1000 poster designs to his credit, his large representation in the series is justified, although some critics have pointed out that, as the artistic director, he may have been biased towards selecting his own work. "Of the other 96 artists represented in "Les Maitres de l'Affiche, some were pre-eminent painters and printmakers at various stages of their careers: Toulouse-Lautrec, Denis, Bonnard, Vallotton. Others were famous illustrators and cartoonists of the period, still well known to art collectors, including Forain, Caran d'Ache, Ibels, Boutet de Monvel, Leandre. But there were also all those whose names say 'poster,' the conquering pioneers of the new medium including, Cheret himself, Mucha, Steinlen, Beggarstaffs, Grasset, Penfield, Parrish, Bradley, Hardy... the list could go on and on." (Appelbaum p.iii)


"Les Affiches Illustrees" and "Das Moderne Plakat"

Both are similar in style and quality to the "Les Maitres de l'Affiche" offering a wonderful selection of the greatest posters of the day. Each plate is approximately 3/4 the size of a comparable "Maitres de l'Affiche" version (sheet size 8 1/2 in x 12 in) and currently priced at approximately 60% of the " Maitres de l'Affiche" version. The name of each publication and the printer are printed in the margins on each plate. Each publication included some of the same images that also appear as "Maitres de l'Affiche." They have all become rare and valuable to the serious collector.

Les Affiches Illustrees was printed in Paris by Imprimerie Chaix who also printed "Les Maitre de l'Affiche." Published in two bound volumes in 1886 and 1896 offering 84 lithograph plates including Cheret, Lautrec, Steinlen, Grasset, Mucha and others. The printing was limited to only 1025, making them very rare indeed. 

Das Moderne Plakat was printed in Dresden by Verlag von Gerhard Kuhtmann in 1897. A bound volume with 52 lithograph plates including Lautrec, Steinlen, Beggarstaff, Mucha, and others. Also a truly wonderful printing.


Investment today

"Les Maitres de l'Affiche, Affiches Illustrees and Das Moderne Plakat" were produced for collectors at the turn of the century and have been sought after by collectors for over 100 years. Many of the posters in the series cannot be found today in any other format. They have not survived. Others are extremely rare and have sold for staggering amounts (for example see PL.122, PL.197, and PL.95). Individual plates can range in price from around $100 to over $10,000 USD. With the advent of more interest in posters, prices have been increasing steadily. Over the last 10 years, many plates have doubled or tripled in value. "One of the strongest changes over the last ten years is that there is a larger and more knowledgeable group of poster collectors," says Lucy Broido (poster historian). "This is due, in part, to museum exhibitions and increased news about posters."


The Collector

As we have seen the actual size of the posters in the series, make them very manageable. Unless you have enormous wall space with very high ceilings, one large poster can dominate an entire room. The beauty of these series is that they can be framed and displayed alone or in groups, showing one or several artists, with one or several subjects or styles, the combinations endless. They can be very affordable when compared to their larger counterparts (example see PL.150). which may not even be available today. As well the condition can vary greatly in all sizes and formats, from poor condition (D) to excellent condition (A).


Collecting Posters

"Today original posters by Cheret, Steinlen, Mucha, and Toulouse-Lautrec have far exceeded many other forms of investment. Unlike stocks and bonds, posters can be enjoyed for their beauty as well as their investment values in the global art market.


Investment value aside, the true collector collects for the love of the art itself. You should collect what you like, and expand your interest slowly based upon looking at posters. This is exactly what they were designed for, to deliver a message to you, to be admired, to be remembered, and now most of all, to be enjoyed."


Greg Yaneff, Director