Digital Commonwealth

American Art Posters 1890-1920

Boston Public Library

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With the invention of lithography in Germany in 1798 and its introduction into France and England during the first years of the 19th century, there was an increasing demand for images among the growing middle class. As the new technique allowed much larger editions than did the older techniques of woodcut, engraving, and etching, lithography became the technique of choice for reproducing the works of well-known artists and for producing placards that advertised products, theatrical productions, art exhibitions, books, and magazines. The intention was not only to attract customers but also to bring art into everyday life.

By the mid-19th century, lithographic firms had been established in cities across the United States, including Boston, which became a hub for the publishing of illustrated books and magazines. In 1890, the Grolier Club in New York City held an exhibition of French posters, which exposed American artists to developments in poster art that had taken place in France during the 1880s, led by such artists as Jules Cheret and Eugène Grasset. In 1892, Grasset was commissioned to design the cover for the Christmas issue of Harper's Monthly Magazine.

In the midst of the growing American interest in European poster art, Harper and Brothers then commissioned Edward Penfield, the firm's artistic director, to design a poster for the April 1893 issue of Harper's Monthly Magazine. The poster was so successful, Penfield designed a new poster for the May issue, and thus began a collaboration between Penfield and Harper and Brothers that continued until 1899.

Other publishers, including Charles Scribner's Sons, J.B. Lippincott Company, The Century Company, Copeland & Day, and Lamson, Wolffe, & Co., followed Harper and Brothers lead. Facilitated by advances in printing, they commissioned artists including Will Carqueville, Joseph J. Gould, Jr., Maxfield Parrish, Will Bradley, Ethel Reed, and Louis John Rhead to design posters that often were also used as magazine covers and were offered for sale to collectors.

Between 1893 and the end of the century, the poster movement in America flourished. After 1900, publishers continued to commission posters, but there no longer was the same interest among collectors, and many of the poster artists who had been prominent during the 1890s disappeared from public view. Nevertheless, the posters of the 1890s continue to influence the work of American artists more than a century later.

The Boston Public Library's collection of approximately 590 American art posters concentrates on the period of the height of the poster movement during the 1890s. The holdings are particularly rich in posters designed by Edward Penfield, Will Bradley, and Ethel Reed. For more information or to view posters in the collection, please contact the Library's Print Department by telephone at (617) 859-2280 or via e-mail at prints@bpl.org.