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Jules Cheret was born to a poor family of artisans in Paris on May 31, 1836. His formal education ended at the age of thirteen, when his father placed him in a three-year apprenticeship to a lithographer in order to help the family. He continued to work for several lithographers while attending the Ecole des Arts Decoratifs. Cheret had some success selling sketches for covers to various music publishers but it didn’t afford him the luxury of pursuing a career in art. At this point he went to London to study technical advancements in color lithography. After six months of drawing pictures for a furniture company catalog Cheret returned to Paris.
In 1858, young Cheret sold a poster design for Orphée aux Enfers to Jacques Offenbach. The poster was a success but when no commission followed, Cheret again returned to London. There he barely supported himself doing posters for operas, circuses and music halls. A turning point in Cheret’s career developed when a friend of his introduced him to perfume manufacturer Eugene Rimmel. Cheret did floral designs for the Rimmel products and in 1866 Rimmel advanced the funds that enabled Cheret to return to Paris and set up his own lithography studio.
The early poster designers used on or two colors on tinted paper, or in red and green strongly outlined in black. In 1890 Cheret abandoned this primitive technique altogether and discontinued using black for a softer outline in blue. From that time on he used flowing yellows, reds, and oranges against cool greens, and vibrant blues. Cheret was greatly affected by the works of Rubens, Watteau, and especially Tiepolo, whose strong influence is reflected in the vertical composition of many of Cheret’s posters. The technique of color-printing as applied to posters was, if not invented, at least enormously developed and refined by Jules Cheret, Lautrec’s most distinguished predecessor in this field, during the eighteen-eighties.
Cheret won a silver medal at the Universal Exposition of 1879 and a gold medal at the Exposition of 1889. In the same year, an exhibition of about one hundred of his posters, pastels, lithographs, drawings, and sketches for posters was held at the Theatre d’Application. This proved to be another turning point for Cheret. A petition to have Cheret decorated was signed by leading figures in the arts, including Rodin, Daudet, de Goncourt and Massennet. In 1891, he became a Chevalier de la Légion of Honor, cited as “the creator of an art industry.”
Cheret produced over one thousand posters in both color and black and white. However, after 1900 he stopped taking poster commissions on a regular basis in order to devote more time to his paintings and pastels. In 1912 Cheret was honored by the Louvre Museum with retrospective exhibit at Pavillion de Marsan. Cheret had often wintered in Nice and toward the end of his life he lived there exclusively until his death in 1932 at the age of 96. A large collection of his works is on display at the Hermitage museum in Russia.
Cheret’s charming, frivolous Harlequins, columbines, and Pierrots, his girls and boys in masks and fancy dresses, were a delight to the eye; his brilliant yet delicate colors danced like flickering sunbeams over the gray stonewalls of Paris. The posters turned out while other contemporary designers were by comparison, vastly inferior in composition, crude in color, and slipshod in execution. For more than a decade, until the advent of Lautrec, Cheret had no serious rival; he was the only creative artist who really understood the decorative possibilities of the poster.
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