La Rue, by Théophile Alexandre Steinlen, 1896

They are still part of Paris and just as French as the Moulin Rouge or Le Chat Noir themselves: the prints that were the first advertisements in Europe. Starting from 1890 onwards, printmaking erupted into a huge hype in the French capital. “Paris at that time was the place to be for artists. They sat in café’s on Montmartre and discussed art. And all of them made these prints,” says Fleur Roos Rosa de Carvalho, curator of prints and drawings at the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam.

The Van Gogh Museum has 1,800 French prints from this time, (fin de siècle from 1890–1905), making this one of the world’s leading print collections. Vincent van Gogh himself only made nine during his life. “Vincent van Gogh died right before print making became popular. But we know he was very interested in this art form, and we are sure he would have participated if he had lived. His contemporaries and friends, like Gauguin, Toulouse-Lautrec, the Nabis and Steinlen, all experimented with lithography, etching and woodcuts,” Roos Rosa de Carvalho told hiEurope.

Poster for the tour of Le Chat Noir Théophile Alexandre Steinlen, 1896, and Moulin Rouge, La Goulue, poster for the Dance Hall Le Moulin Rouge Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, 1891

From Elite to the Street

These artists would make similar paintings and prints, but with different purposes. The artists in Paris shared the same influences and styles, and even the same printers, publishers and types of paper. But their work ended up in very different places. Some prints were raised to the level of high art and could only be seen in private collections, fashionable theatres and exclusive galleries. “People often think that these prints were used to decorate houses, but this wasn’t the case at all. Many prints were kept on special stands or in cupboards, away from visitors. They were only to be viewed by the owner,” the curator says.

Sheet music A la trinité by Achille Bloch and Louis Byrec Théophile Alexandre Steinlen, 1893, and Poster for the Café-concert Le Divan Japonais Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, 1893

At the same time, the artists produced prints for the street, and these were to be seen all over Paris. Everyone came into contact with them, in the form of posters, theatre programs, sheet music and books, which artists designed on a large scale. In this way they set out to integrate their art into daily life. The now world-famous posters as those advertising the cabarets at Le Chat Noir and Le Moulin Rouge, filled the public space along the boulevards and in popular cafés. “It was the first time artists thought about how they could use images to sell products. These street posters had to grab the attention of people who passed by in a few minutes. So the purpose of the artists was very different,” Roos Rosa de Carvalho says.

One of the most famous images the museum will have on display is an advertisement for a masked ball at the Moulin Rouge. More than 3,000 copies of this iconic poster were displayed in the streets of Paris in December 1891. The poster, which depicts a famous cancan dancer and her partner, made artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec famous overnight and he quickly came to be seen as one of the greatest print designers of all time. “With the print-hype, life and art all of a sudden started to mingle. Artists didn’t just paint paintings for the elite. For them, to have their posters on the street was as much an honor as having a painting in an exhibition.”

Milliners (Modistes) Hermann-Paul, 1894

Soon the street prints also became collector’s items. “Some of them, like Toulouse-Lautrec’s works, were actually ripped from the walls by collectors,” Roos Rosa de Carvalho says. The curator spend five years studying the collection of the museum. The prints have all been described and put online on an interactive website. The upcoming exhibition will be a special event, Roos Rosa de Carvalho says, as the print collection can only be shown every four years for four months. The rest of the time, the posters are safely kept in the museum’s safe. “These images are all printed on paper, and are very sensitive to light. We have to preserve them carefully.”


Prints in Paris 1900: From Elite to the Street

3 March - 11 June 2017

Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.