Leonetto Cappiello: the caricatures of the famous poster artist of the Belle Epoque

Leonetto Cappiello the caricatures of the famous poster artist of

“Surprise is the basis of all advertising,” proclaims the man who revolutionized the genre in France in the wake of the great Jules Chéret. Faced with astonished onlookers, its promotional posters then offer an image without any direct connection with the product they are supposed to promote. Not a gram of cocoa, for example, on the one extolling the merits of Klaus chocolate, but a graceful amazon riding her horse. Never before seen, and nothing like it to capture the eye of passers-by… If Leonetto Cappiello became, during his lifetime, one of the most famous poster artists of the first half of the 20th century, he began his career as a caricaturist. And here too shows audacity. It is this period, circumscribed between 1898 and 1905, that the Louis-Senlecq museum of art and historyin L’Isle-Adam (Val-d’Oise), restored on its walls in a colorful exhibition concocted by Caroline Oliveira and Nicolas-Henri Zmelty.

When 23-year-old Cappiello left his native Tuscany in the spring of 1898 to go to Paris, he immediately struck a chord. Coming as a tourist to visit his brother employed at the Stock Exchange, the young self-taught man, who has no other business card than an early stroke of his pencil, falls in love with the capital – “the city where we think the most, where we work the most,” he marvels. He will never leave her again. On July 23, his portrait of the queen of the boards Réjane, on the front page of Laugh, creates a sensation with its refined graphics and solid colors. This is because Leonetto has a technique of his own: in the performance halls, which he frequents assiduously, he sketches his models without omitting the slightest detail, then, returning to his workshop, removes any unnecessary element from them. The fine arabesque line then only evokes an immediately recognizable gesture or presence.

“Madame Réjane” on the front page of “Le Rire”, July 1898.

His Réjane opens the artist’s doors to the stars of the moment. The “fin de siècle teller” Yvette Guilbert, the magazine leader Louise Balthy, the caf’conc’ singer Polaire, the star Sarah Bernhardt… They all demand him when they understand that his chapel is not that of the portrait -charge or satire of morals, genres that the Italian willingly leaves to Léandre, Faivre or Camara who, in the great tradition, accentuate the failings of their characters. Boulevard, mime, ballet, melodrama or operetta, Leonetto Cappiello carries his sketchbooks through all the stage registers, here the dancer Sada Yacco, star of the Universal Exhibition of 1900, there the imposing Lucien Guitry facing the frail Suzanne Desprès in the theatrical adaptation of The Stunner by Zola. And imposes its trademark: the elegance of an “essentialist” composition.

1716111355 529 Leonetto Cappiello the caricatures of the famous poster artist of
“Capiello by himself”, 1904.

From this imagery relating to caricature through drawing but moving away from it by the absence of any contesting charge remains the social chronicle of an All-Paris, where celebrities see this formidable free publicity establish their reputation without suffering the disadvantages of the satire. A nice masterstroke for Cappiello who, by contributing to the firmament of his grateful models, himself reaches the heights of success. The only downside: after his honeymoon with Sarah Bernhardt at the height of her glory, Leonetto found himself disgraced by the tragedian, upset at having been represented from behind in one of the Italian’s illustrations. She will never forgive him.