Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen, La Traite des Blanches, 1899 Credit: Courtesy Driehaus Museum

Advertising is a dark art. After all, subterfuge is usually required to convince someone to become a customer. But commerce can be a source of amusement. Think of the Super Bowl, for instance: a sizable chunk of the audience tunes in each year to see new ads rather than the game itself.

A new exhibit at the Driehaus Museum, “L’Affichomania: The Passion for French Posters,” pays tribute to artists from the dawn of the advertising age. In her catalog essay, curator Jeannine Falino quotes critic André Mellerio referring to French street posters as “frescoes, if not of the poor, at least of the crowd.” These are the ancient ancestors (and far more elegant predecessors) of the pop-up ad and the infomercial.

Prior to the belle epoque—the early 1870s until World War I, the era that “L’Affichomania” covers—color lithography was mostly used for reproductions of paintings. The process was laborious: each image was printed using multiple heavy pieces of flat limestone, and every color in the print required its own stone, so the paper had to be run through multiple times (you can see registration marks, used to line up the colors, in some of the works in the exhibition). But the technique produced beautiful, polychromatic sheets, and marketers were able to push products in front of the masses in a new, enhanced format. Issued on cheap paper and plastered all over the walls and kiosks of Paris, the posters were an instant hit with crowds and soon attracted art collectors. In no time enterprising manufacturers crafted editions on improved paper stock and often with no text at all, subtly turning them into stand-alone art prints.

At the head of the stairs to the second-floor galleries, you can see Alphonse Mucha’s Cycles Perfecta. Mucha’s images—whether selling Job cigarette papers or promoting Sarah Bernhardt’s latest play—convey a premodern fairy-tale timelessness. His enchanted maidens, with their curlicue tresses, are backed by elaborate geometric patterns—they seem ill-suited to market much but their own beauty, yet the artfully included text always directs the viewer to the product or event being offered. In one room, Jules Chéret’s joyful lasses pirouette around delighted gentlemen, leaving colorful stardust in their wake, but not before informing the casual glancer of that night’s burlesque act, or the latest trendy cocktail. As with much successful marketing, what these happy girls are promoting is “the good life” rather than a lowly commercial product: Come with us, they seem to say, and all your worries will melt away.

A couple of the artists on display tried to subvert the ad-poster medium. Théophile Alexandre Steinlen was able to insert social commentary into his work and occasionally irritate the constraints of polite society. His La Traite Blanche (White Slavery) was censored because one of the prostitutes portrayed in it was bare breasted; he grudgingly covered her up with a lacy brassiere, but even so his sympathy for the plight of working girls is unmistakable. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec greatly empathized with those in the demimonde—he sometimes lived in brothels, and was a fixture in nightclubs alongside the performers he illustrated.

Up on the third floor, in the smallest gallery, there’s a tiny scale model of businessman and museum founder Richard Driehaus’s office, created by miniaturist Henry Kupjack. There are replicas of some of the posters from “L’Affichomania” hung on the fine, imitation-wood walls. Looking into this little room made me ponder the journey these humble street ads have traveled: from the walls of fin de siécle Paris through countless reproductions and variations to skyrocketing auction prices and finally here in 21st-century Chicago, doll-sized inside of a millionaire’s mansion, punctuating the inescapable relationship of art and commerce.  v