Download 2,000 Magnificent Turn-of-the-Century Art Posters, Courtesy of the New York Public Library

nypl art poster

A scroll through any col­lec­tion of con­tem­po­rary graph­ic design port­fo­lios makes for a dizzy­ing tour of the seem­ing­ly unlim­it­ed range of col­ors, tex­tures, fonts, etc. avail­able to the mod­ern com­mer­cial artist. From the most col­or­ful pop art to the sub­tlest fine art, it seems that any and every vision can be real­ized on the page or screen thanks to dig­i­tal tech­nol­o­gy. Turn the dial back over a hun­dred years, and the posters, mag­a­zine cov­ers, and adver­tise­ments can seem prim­i­tive by ini­tial com­par­i­son, some­what washed out and ane­mic, and cer­tain­ly noth­ing like the can­dy-col­ored visu­al feast that meets our eyes on lap­top and smart­phone screens these days.


But look clos­er at the design of a cen­tu­ry past, and you’ll find, I think, just as much vari­ety, skill, and imagination—if not near­ly so much col­or and slickness—as is on dis­play today. And though soft­ware enables design­ers to cre­ate images and sur­faces of which their pre­de­ces­sors could only dream, those hand-illus­trat­ed graph­ics of the past hold a strik­ing­ly sim­ple allure that still com­mands our attention—drawing from art nou­veau, impres­sion­ism, pre-Raphaelite, and oth­er fine art forms and incor­po­rat­ing mod­ernist lines and con­trasts.

nypl art posters

Any graph­ic design­er work­ing today can learn from the adver­tis­ing posters you see here, and—thanks to the New York Pub­lic Library’s Turn of the Cen­tu­ry Posters col­lec­tion—can view and down­load hun­dreds more in high res­o­lu­tion, over 2000 more.

The Female Rebellion

“The advent of the art poster in Amer­i­ca,” writes NYPL, “is trace­able to the pub­li­ca­tion of Edward Pen­field­’s poster adver­tis­ing the March 1893 issue of Harper’s. [See a col­lec­tion of his Harper’s posters here.] Unlike ear­li­er adver­tis­ing posters, Pen­field­’s work pre­sent­ed an implied graph­ic nar­ra­tive to which text was sec­ondary. In this way, and sub­se­quent­ly, in the hands of major artists such as Pen­field, Will Bradley and Ethel Reed, the poster moved from the realm of com­mer­cial art to an ele­vat­ed, artis­tic posi­tion.” These posters quick­ly became col­lec­tor’s items, and “became more desir­able than the pub­li­ca­tion they were adver­tis­ing.”


As such, the turn-of-the-cen­tu­ry art poster pushed the pub­lish­ing indus­try toward graph­i­cal­ly illus­trat­ed-mag­a­zine cov­ers and book jack­ets. The increas­ing­ly styl­ish, beau­ti­ful­ly-exe­cut­ed posters on dis­play in the NYPL archive show us not only the devel­op­ment of mod­ern com­mer­cial design as adver­tis­ing, but also its devel­op­ment as an art form. Though we may have need­ed Andy Warhol and his con­tem­po­raries to remind us that com­mer­cial art can just as well be fine art, a look through this stun­ning gallery of posters shows us that pop­u­lar graph­ics and fine art often trad­ed places long before the pop art rev­o­lu­tion.

The Century

Relat­ed Con­tent:

100,000+ Won­der­ful Pieces of The­ater Ephemera Dig­i­tized by The New York Pub­lic Library

Food­ie Alert: New York Pub­lic Library Presents an Archive of 17,000 Restau­rant Menus (1851–2008)

The New York Pub­lic Library Lets You Down­load 180,000 Images in High Res­o­lu­tion: His­toric Pho­tographs, Maps, Let­ters & More

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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