The Spellbinding, Bookish World of Art Nouveau Posters

5 Lippincott s April
William L. Carqueville, “Lippincott’s, April” (1895), 19 x 12 7/16 inches, Leonard A. Lauder Collection of American Posters (all images courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Deceptively niche as it may seem, the literary poster occupies a special place at the intersection of American art history and literature. Advances in color printing technology at the end of the 19th century made way for a flood of colorful and intricately detailed materials, often in the form of handbills and posters, which were suddenly more affordable as a vehicle to advertise the latest books, magazines, periodicals, and other forms of literature.

Accompanying an eponymous exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Art of the Literary Poster: The Leonard A. Lauder Collection illuminates the expansive genre through several examples culled from the titular collection, accompanied by essays on the form by exhibition curator Allison Rudnick, scholar Jennifer A. Greenhill, paper conservator Rachel Mustalish, historian Shannon Vittoria, and Lauder himself — a billionaire known for his art collecting and philanthropy, also associated through the Estée Lauder family business with his brother Ronald Lauder, who maintains right-wing political views and donor practices.

Both historically astute and visually delightful, the book captures the influence of the Art Nouveau movement on printed materials at the turn of the century, as well as showcases the evolution of graphic design as innovations in multi-color plate printing that allowed text and imagery to come together in increasingly complex ways. Vittoria’s essay highlights the particular power of literary posters as a genre “by women, for women,” noting that American illustration was one of the few professions young women were encouraged to pursue at the time.

“As male artists and critics worked to defeminize illustration by minimizing women’s contributions to the field, female artists and advocates saw the potential of the visual arts, particularly printed media, to advance the campaign for women’s suffrage,” Vittoria writes. “The art poster became a potent tool in this struggle.”

Turn-of-the-century literary journals like Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine and Harper’s were some of the first publications to avail themselves of this new technology, with cover art featuring thoroughly modern Gibsonesque girls riding bikes, snuggling cats, and of course, reading. Though the magazine and visual digest Bradley, His Book was only published between 1896 and ’97, the cover works by Art Nouveau illustrator and film director William H. Bradley, its publisher, are dazzling examples of the intricacies made newly possible in literary art posters. One five-color cover, a lithograph and woodcut print titled “The Kiss,” conveys a figure donning a head laurel and Romanesque flowing robes sharing an intimate embrace with a peacock, all bordered by a decorative frame recalling illuminated manuscripts.

In her catalog essay, Rudnick examines a cover of the July 1896 issue of Lippincott’s as the essence of the burgeoning form. Created by Joseph J. Gould Jr., the image features a woman in a day suit equipped with the exaggerated sleeve caps and narrow skirt of the era, perched calmly on a bike with a straw hat on her head, which partially obscures the masthead’s bold red letters. She is biking out of a richly blue background, presumably off to enjoy the copy of Lippincott’s held against the handlebars in her right hand. “The poster itself represented something new: an advertisement that looks and functions like a work of art,” Rudnick writes, “an image made for public consumption in which commercialism and culture coalesce.”

The distinctive print also captures the spirit of new possibilities for women, as a cavalcade of unbothered women on bikes became the visual heralds of the era’s first-wave feminism that paved the way for women’s movements of the following century. A 1911 “Votes for Women” poster by artist and educator Bertha Margaret Boyé, chosen as the winner of a poster competition held by the San Francisco College Equal Suffrage League, embodies this renewed sense of possibility as a woman in flowing yellow robes stands before a landscape displaying the titular banner. Behind her, the rising orange sun halos her head, giving the effect of saintliness while hinting at the dawning of new opportunities.

Full of aplomb women on bikes with literary and political ambitions (and, of course, cats), The Art of the Literary Poster gathers inarguably beautiful printed materials that — even beyond their political and promotional implications — demonstrate the elegance, interests, and aesthetics of a pivotal moment in art history.

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