The Artist: Who Was Leonetto Cappiello?
In the Italian resort town of Livorno, the “poster master” was born. His talents were revealed early in life: at the age of eleven he created two oil portraits as well as copied versions of famous works such as Raphael’s Transfiguration. 1 His hunger for the arts evolved into a rewarding career as a caricature artist, despite his lack of formal training. He would move from his home country to France to make a name for himself as an artist. His work would define the French commercial world throughout the early to mid 20th century.
At first, Cappiello’s talent for design manifested in journals for the arts such as Le Rire, Le Cri de Paris, Le Sourire, L’Assiette au Beurre, La Baionnette, Femina, and others. He presented his work for the first time in a group exhibition in Florence. Soon after, in 1896, he published a collection of caricatures called Lanterna Magica. 1 His small scale freelance work evolved into a steady career as a designer for Parisian advertisements. After signing a contract with the printers P. Vercasson, Cappiello designed approximately 3,000 lithographic posters for ballets and theater, though he is often associated with various champagne and spirit brands such as Contratto and Martin & Rossi. 2
Decorative art was no longer a priority by the Great War. During this time, Cappiello moved back to Italy to pursue temporary employment as an interpreter. People sought simplified aesthetics after the end of the war, perhaps hoping the departure from traditional design would also create space between them and a tragic past. At this point in history, new artists had emerged to spearhead a new movement called “Art Deco.” A.M Cassandre showcased his cubic style and in the process undermined Cappiello’s position as the premier commercial designer. 2
Cappiello officially became a French citizen after having spent most of his professional life in France. Equipped with an impressive legacy, he retired in Grasse and died at the age of 67.
The Works: Why His Advertisement Designs Stood Out
Cappiello redefined the art nouveau characteristics. He rejected the ornate and stylized creations of previous artists and capitalized on man’s desire for instant gratification. His work can be described casually as “in your face.” In more complex terms, Cappiello achieved an instant visual impact. This aligned with the fast-paced ways of the new century. For him, an advertisement was more significant if its purpose was simply stated. An audience shouldn’t have to unravel the true meaning of an ad before deciding whether or not to give into their consumerist temptations. 2
I have four different Cappiello works in my home. The solid backgrounds are contrasted by the simple yet effective lines of his focal design. The J. Edouard Pernot absinthe ad, for example, has a golden yellow background with bold black text and two central characters dressed also in black. A man watches with satisfaction as a woman sips from a dainty glass. Three empty bottles litter the table top: this product is worth purchasing… it’s even worth buying three whole bottles!