Treasure: Chicago exhibit spotlights French art form

Khristi Zimmeth
Special to The Detroit News

I have been suffering from this malady for some time, but only now can put a name to it. “Affichomanie,” as the French called it, refers to the obsessive collecting of an art form that arose on the streets of Paris in the late 19th century.

“In the late 1870s, Parisians walking about the streets witnessed a brilliant new art form — the color poster,” according to an information-filled French-style kiosk at the entrance to “L’Affichomania: The Passion for French Posters,” now showing at Chicago’s gemlike Richard H. Driehaus Museum, a breathtaking 19th-century mansion just steps from Michigan Avenue. “Boulevards were filled with these new posters, which quickly supplanted time-honored but dreary black-and-white announcements. By the 1880s, they were seen everywhere, forming a colorful backdrop to everyday life …. Despite their ephemeral nature and commercial origin, posters were passionately collected in their own day by affichomaniacs. A small industry developed around the buying and selling of posters, not to mention those who stealthily removed them from walls and kiosks.”

A longtime Francophile, I’ve always admired the bright colors and accessible style of Gallic turn-of-the-century posters, copies of which I have hanging on my walls and bulletin boards at home. So I was happy to stumble on the exhibition on a recent weekend visit and see some of the original and historic versions of these iconic images. They’re well worth stopping to see on your next Windy City visit.

The small but special exhibition, which takes over the second floor and a small amount of the third floor of the museum, includes 45 works by five of the art form’s most prolific and influential practitioners: Jules Cheret, who pioneered three-color lithography and is widely recognized as the father of French posters; Eugene Grasset, who worked in a predominantly Arts and Crafts style, Alphonse Mucha, a Czech artist most closely identified with the art nouveau style who developed the swirling tresses and halo-headed females of the era; Theophile-Alexandre Steinlen, with commercial clients who ranged from sterilized milk (the girl in the famous milk and cats poster is his daughter, Colette) to theater, and the perhaps best-known, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, who struggled with physical challenges and found solace in artistic pursuits, concentrating on the entertainment district of his upper Paris Montmartre neighborhood.

Each artist is given his own room, and you can follow the evolution of the form and learn more about some of the best-known images — Steinlen’s Le Chat Noir, Toulouse-Lautrec’s Moulin Rouge and Ambassadeurs Aristide Bruant — as well as enjoy the lesser known and overlooked. Originals of these works are hard to come by, and when found, often bring very high prices. All date from 1875 to 1910 and are drawn from Driehaus’s personal collection.

“Bright and bold and found everywhere in fin-de-siècle Paris, the poster was a brilliant fusion of art and commerce,” according to the exhibition. “Subject as it was to wind, rain, and being covered up by posters from rival firms, the ephemeral poster nonetheless became the subject of passionate collecting in its own time” says Jeannine Falino, exhibition curator. More than a century later, collectors still search for these colorful art forms—a testimony both to their artistic worth and enduring appeal.

The exhibition is on view through Jan. 7, 2018. For more information, visit