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Leonetto Cappiello The Father of Modern Advertising



Leonetto Cappiello, 1875 – 1942, was an Italian and French poster art designer and painter, whose art and life were centered in the Paris France art scene.  Cappiello is often referred to as the father of modern advertising, and he has truly earned this honor with his innovation in poster design. When Cappiello began painting advertising posters, they were characterized by early poster artists such as Jules Chéret, Alfred Choubrac and Hugo D'Alesi as having a “fine art quality”. Cappiello was the first poster artist to use bold figures popping out of black backgrounds, a startling contrast to the advertising posters early norm.

Leonetto  Cappiello's Self Portrait Cariacture circa 1905


Cappiello was born in the small coastal town of Livorno in Tuscany in 1875. He enjoyed a comfortable middle-class childhood.  He had no formal training as an artist – he was entirely self-taught.

Ermete Novelli & Giacomo Puccini, 1898. These are the first works Cappiello sold upon arriving in Paris.

Cappiello first showed his work in 1892 at a group exhibition in Florence. His initial focus was on portraits and caricatures, and in 1896 he produced his first album of caricatures called Lanterna Magica. In 1898 he made his way to Paris, where he began painting caricatures for the French publication Le Rire. He then branched out to newspapers and other journals.


In 1902, Cappiello’s 24-page book of his caricatures was published entitled Gens du Monde, or “People of High Society” for the magazine L'Assiette au Beurre. The following year, he published a 38-page book entitled Le Théâtre de Cappiello, “The Theatre of Cappiello”, for a special issue of Le Théâtre magazine, with captions written by theatre critics. In 1899 he received his first poster commission for the newspaper Frou-Frou, and in 1900 he signed a poster art contract with the printer Pierre Vercasson, which he fulfilled at the same time as his caricature work. Meanwhile, the Parisian poster scene was experiencing something of a decline. In 1900, Jules Cheret abandoned chromolithographic posters to concentrate on painting. In 1901, Toulouse-Lautrec died, and 3 years later the Art Nouveau designer Alphonse Mucha departed Paris for America and Czechoslovakia.


Leonetto Cappiello's Caricatures of Parisian Celebrities

Cappiello had moved away from caricature work and concentrated on posters by 1905. In his final caricature book 70 Dessins de Cappiello, or “70 drawings by Cappiello” by H. Floury, Cappiello included black and white lithographic prints as well as a handful of color images.  

Leonetto Cappiello's Frou Frou Advertisement Circa 1905

Cappiello married Suzanne Meyer Cappiello in 1901 and lived in Paris in the center of the art community. Cappiello’s career as a poster artist began in earnest in 1900 when he began his contract with Vercasson. In this period, the printers would act as an agent for artists and commission work to them. Vercasson had a print house, and his goal was to bring vibrancy and color to the streets of Paris, he wanted the posters that he produced to stand out from the rest and attract lucrative new advertisers to his agency. Vercasson was very active in the Paris art scene, and had seen many examples of Cappiello’s work, including a small number of posters already produced and those for Le Frou-Frou.

Leonetto Cappiello Vintage Italian Food Advertisement circa 1914

Vercasson knew that Cappiello had the potential to be exactly what he was looking for. The relationship commenced with the arrangement that Vercasson would find the clients and brief Cappiello on the product. It was then up to Cappiello to produce a sketch for the client for which he would receive the fee of 500 francs, a good amount at the time. Once the design had been approved by the client, a full-size design would be produced for the poster.  Cappiello was responsible for ensuring the successful transfer of the design onto lithographic stone ready for printing.

Leonetto Cappiello Advertisement for Breath Mints circa 1920

Art Nouveau poster style was in decline which provided the opportunity for a young ambitious artist- designer like Cappiello, who immediately set to work applying his skills as a caricaturist to poster art.  His style was very different than the status quo of the day.  Instead of relying on complex, stylized and painterly designs used by previous poster artists, Cappiello focused on instant visual impact, clean lines, and his images were more appropriate to the faster pace of the 20th-century. In sharp contrast to his predecessors, Cappiello images provided a simple visual symbol for a product and could create a much more powerful advertising message than all the floral art masterpieces that were in fashion at the time.

Leonetto Cappiello Advertisement for La Cruz del Campo Beers circa 1926

No matter what he was advertising -fashion, alcohol, or food, Cappiello employed simple strong images which brought an attention-grabbing sense of humor to every poster he made.  In addition to gaining widespread visibility, the technique of using single bold images was also extremely effective in brand-building, as certain products became closely associated with certain images. During the period 1901-1914, Cappiello produced several hundred color lithographic posters that revolutionized the art of poster design.

Leonetto Cappiello Advertisement for Pink Pills for Pale People circa 1910

During World War I, Cappiello worked as an interpreter in Italy. The world changed during and after the war, and so did advertising. It moved on… The post-war mood across Europe changed. The war had smashed the traditional aesthetics, replacing them with the power of technology and machines. In decorative art and design, the organic idiom of Art Nouveau was being replaced by the machine-age style of a new international movement known as Art Deco. The new icons of power and speed were reflected in Art Deco's simplified, sleek shapes, and angular script. Artists such as Tamara de Lempicka and A.M Cassandre, were now more popular which supplanted Cappiello's position as the dominant designer.

Leonetto Cappiello Advertisement for Travel circa 1921

Cappiello had an amazing career. He worked until his death in February 1942, creating more than 1,700 posters for food, liquor, travel agencies, autos, and theatrical events.  He was one of the most successful poster designers of the 20th century. His work is cherished and in high demand to this day. Cappiello influenced a new generation of designers that started in Europe and spread throughout the world.  He ranks alongside Jules Cheret and Alphonse Mucha as a pioneer of poster art. His works can be seen in most of the best art museums in the United States and Europe.

Leonetto Cappiello Advertisement for Coffee circa 1922