As the evolution of poster art continued from its inception in the 1890s, new design styles and methods of product presentation were conceived to reflect the changing times. Among the many names that followed the success of Chéret, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Mucha, one artist stood out above the rest; Italian Leonetto Cappiello.
A self-taught artist with no formal training, Cappiello first gained fame for his caricatures soon after his arrival in Paris. Unlike other artists who would grossly distort the subject’s features in an attempt at ridicule, Cappiello was more restrained and utilized subtle exaggeration to highlight his subject’s notable characteristics. As such, many famous public figures found his caricatures inoffensive and had no objections to being portrayed.
Cappiello would have likely continued his career path as a caricaturist if it had not been for an editor’s request that he provide a poster to celebrate the launch of a new magazine. The resulting poster was so successful that he was soon inundated with offers from advertisers to produce posters for their various products. Although his earlier poster work retained the feel of caricature, Cappiello soon developed a recognizable style that had an immense impact on the burgeoning world of advertising.
Cappiello’s work typically depicted a single eye-catching image, illuminated on a darker background. This style was in contrast to earlier advertising posters which were not only highly-detailed, but also tended to cover most of the allotted space, often with unnecessary details, so often there was not one clear focal point for the viewer. However, earlier posters with their meticulous approach fit the viewing style of the time; people either walked or traveled by horse-drawn carriage, so they had plenty of time to examine the image at their leisure. With the invention and widespread use of the automobile, this was no longer possible and images had to be viewed more quickly as people raced past them. Hence, Cappiello’s simpler visual style became more useful.
Simplifying the style added an element of visual surprise, and the contrast between the darker background and the vivid colors of the main image was eye-catching and memorable. In addition, Cappiello chose an image to represent a product, instead of the product itself, and he reproduced that specific image for that specific product; this led to the product being identified with a distinctive image and was the first attempt at branding. By focusing on the functional aspect of graphic design, Cappiello’s posters allowed for increased consumer interest and also amplified sales. People no longer had to remember a product name, they could just ask for “the chocolate with the red horse.” Consumers were drawn to the posters and they remembered the images associated with the products and felt compelled to buy them. With this revolutionary adaptation of the advertising poster, Cappiello became known as “the Father of Modern Advertising.”
While Cappiello’s work was always harmonious and balanced, it also often contained elements of understated humor which allowed the viewer to feel a connection to the product being advertised. For example, in his most famous work, a poster advertising the French alcohol Maurin Quina, he depicts a green devilish figure who is smiling mischievously while uncorking a bottle of the advertised beverage. Not only is there an association between drinking and devilish behavior, but the green figure is reminiscent of the green fairy, an imaginary sprite said to appear to those under the effects of absinthe, a popular alcohol of the time.
Although Cappiello stopped work during World War I to act as an interpreter, after the war ended he returned to Paris and to his previous profession. Throughout his career, he created over one thousand posters, numerous caricatures and many paintings as well. However, more importantly, through his poster work he brought attention to the graphic design element of advertising and presented a pioneering method of product advertisement which transformed the advertising world and started it on a path that is still utilized today. So, the next time you recognize branding in an advertisement, remember that it’s all thanks to the father of modern advertising, Leonetto Cappiello.