Advertising as Art: How Literary Magazines Pioneered a New Kind of Graphic Design


During the summer of 1896, a poster of a redheaded woman riding a bicycle appeared in bookshop windows and newsstands in cities across the United States.

plate 36 gould jr Joseph J. Gould Jr. (American, 1880–1935) Lippincott’s, July, 1896 Lithograph, 1811⁄16 x 141⁄2 in. (47.5 x 36.9 cm). Leonard A. Lauder Collection of American Posters, Gift of Leonard A. Lauder, 1984 (1984.1202.43).

Sporting a fashionable outfit, the cyclist gazes blankly beyond the viewer, seeming to exert little effort. Though her body occupies most of the composition, she is off-center, her bicycle wheels cropped by the bottom edge of the frame. These compositional strategies create the impression that she is cycling into the viewer’s space; it is as if we are experiencing a fleeting encounter on a busy city street, despite the lack of contextual clues. The flatness of the unmodulated blue background is augmented by the words “LIPPINCOTT’S JULY” emblazoned in large red letters across the top half of the composition, partially obscured by the woman’s flat-brimmed hat.

The poster, an advertisement by Joseph J. Gould Jr. for the July 1896 issue of Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, is thoroughly modern on several fronts. Stylistically, it draws on the aesthetic elements of Japanese wood-cut prints, which inspired a generation of artists in the United States and Europe to abandon the Western tradition of using three-point perspective to convey depth in favor of emphasizing the two-dimensionality of the picture plane.

The poster’s subject matter, too, is emphatically of the moment. Its stylish protagonist, who projects an air of independence and cool detachment, has all the trappings of the so-called New Woman of the Progressive Era. The bicycle suggests that she has the time and resources to enjoy activities such as cycling, a form of leisure popular among the middle and upper classes during the late nineteenth century, while the issue of Lippincott’s magazine that she clutches against the handlebars signals her educated status. Tall and lean, with light skin, upswept hair, and delicate facial features, she manifests the period’s standards of idealized beauty, as embodied in the popular character of the Gibson Girl created by the illustrator Charles Dana Gibson.

More so than other types of advertising, the literary poster epitomized the vanguard in graphic design of the period.

Beyond the bold aesthetic and contemporary subject of Gould’s Lippincott’s, July, the poster itself represented something new: an advertisement that looks and functions like a work of art, an image made for public consumption in which commercialism and culture coalesce. Emerging in the early 1890s, advertising posters devoted to magazines, journals, newspapers, books, and other forms of literature were targeted to appeal to an audience of well-read, affluent Americans.

Although the heyday of this inventive genre was relatively brief, lasting barely a decade, literary posters had a significant influence on graphic design that surpassed and outlasted their practical purpose. By reflecting the hallmarks of modernity in their style, subject matter, and technique, they ushered in an era of sophisticated, high-quality advertisements that marked a shift in the history of American visual culture.

Gould illustrated a poster for each monthly issue of Lippincott’s from late 1895 to mid-1897. His designs closely resemble those of Edward Penfield, the art director at Harper and Brothers, whose sleek, minimalist placard for the April 1893 issue of Harper’s is widely considered to be the first-ever literary poster.

edward penfield Edward Penfield (American, 1866–1925), Harper’s, April, 1893. Lithograph, 18 5⁄8 x 12 7⁄8 in. (47.3 x 32.7 cm). Private collection. Image: Courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries.

In the striking composition, a man in a green overcoat is so immersed in reading an issue of Harper’s that he is oblivious to the fact that it is raining—a witty meteorological reference to “April showers.” Its stark simplicity and seamless integration of image and type stand in contrast to the busy compositions of the theater and circus posters that had become a mainstay of the visual landscape in urban centers across the country.

strobridge Strobridge Lithographing Company (American), P. T. Barnum’s Greatest Show on Earth and The Great London Circus: A Supernatural Equipoise and Balancing Exhibition by a Troupe of Japanese Equilibrists of Extraordinary Agility and Strength, 1882. Lithograph, 30 3⁄16 x 39 13⁄16 in. (76.6 x 101.1 cm). Cincinnati Art Museum, Gift of the Strobridge Lithographing Company (1965.686.70). Image: © Cincinnati Art Museum/Bridgeman Images.

Penfield’s elegant design also demonstrated the artist’s understanding that simple forms make for a poster that effectively communicates a clear, direct message to the viewer. The widespread positive reception of Penfield’s poster inspired competing publishers around the country to commission distinctive advertisements promoting their products, thus launching a veritable “poster craze” that lasted until the end of the decade.

Contemporary critics were attuned to the difference in the quality of design between the literary posters and what came before them. One critic wrote that Penfield’s poster was “unlike anything seen in the land before. It was a poster which forced itself upon one: in design and color it was striking, and yet it was supremely simple throughout… The poster was distinctly successful; it was theoretically as well as practically good. The artist had attained his ends by the suppression of details: there were no unnecessary lines.” Another critic remarked, “The theaters have done little or nothing to encourage artistic advertising. Our billboards are generally an unwieldy mass of letters interspersed with crude and thoughtlessly-placed figures,” whereas “publishing companies first gave the impetus to this work and developed the poster phase in art in our country.” More so than other types of advertising, the literary poster epitomized the vanguard in graphic design of the period.

This new type of poster shared characteristics with fine-art prints that its precursors lacked. Unlike most large-scale advertisements, which were produced by lithography firms, literary posters were frequently printed by the publishing houses that issued them, sometimes on the very presses used to print magazines, newspapers, and books. Art department staff at the houses were able to oversee the printing process, resulting in products of higher quality.

Often designers signed their work—another break from the past that further aligned the new poster with fine art; it was a strategy that catered to a burgeoning market of poster enthusiasts. And unlike large theater and circus posters, which plastered building facades and billboard surfaces, most posters advertising literary products were relatively small and displayed tastefully in bookstores and newsstands. As their artistic status grew, the demand for posters became so acute that some booksellers sold them directly to collectors without displaying them at all. As a critic for The Publishers’ Weekly astutely observed in 1894, “the advertising poster is fast becoming a work of art.”

The posters were ultimately more successful as collectors’ items than they were as advertisements.

The ubiquity of literary posters that feature figures reading, clutching, and carrying magazines serves to locate the genre in the tradition of the portrait of the intellectual. For millennia, a portrait subject’s intellect has been communicated through the presence of a printed text. This motif dates to at least the second millennium BCE, when an Egyptian artist created The Seated Scribe, a sculpture of a man holding a piece of papyrus in his lap. Books abounded in sixteenth-century portraits of Florence’s elite literati. An example is Bronzino’s Portrait of a Young Man, in which the subject has slipped his finger between two pages of a book resting on a table, as if he had been interrupted while reading and is marking where he left off.

fig 4 bronzino Bronzino (Agnolo di Cosimo di Mariano) (Italian, 1503–1572), Portrait of a Young Man, 1530s. Oil on wood, 375⁄8 x 291⁄2 in. (95.6 x 74.9 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, H. O. Havemeyer Collection, Bequest of Mrs. H. O. Havemeyer, 1929 (29.100.16).

According to one scholar, “A young man shown in the act of reading in a Florentine portrait of the 1530s implies a literary consciousness linking him to an intellectual community.”  While an image of a person holding a magazine in an American poster of the 1890s serves as product placement, it also locates the poster within a long art historical lineage linking reading to intellect and refinement.

By the late 1890s, the poster craze began to wane. As one critic wrote in Brush and Pencil in 1899:

We see no longer in the shop windows the vivid things which used to herald loudly in color and design a new magazine or book for the coming month. Not that a new arrival from the land of literature at the present time is not announced by some pictured advertisement—the windows are still crowded—but its advertising is of a more literal and quiet character, as often the book-cover design is enlarged and used for this purpose, or the magazines give us simple character sketches of new-famed officers or politicians.

What she observed was an interesting, if not altogether unsurprising, phenomenon. The posters were ultimately more successful as collectors’ items than they were as advertisements. In response, publishers shifted focus and directed resources toward compelling covers for publications, in some cases commissioning the same poster artists and designers, who adapted their modern illustrative aesthetic to the book-cover format.

Though the posters did not have the selling power that publishers had hoped for, the sleek designs and witty messaging found in advertisements over the course of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries stand as proof of their enduring impact on the marketing industry. By fully embracing—and reflecting—the modern world, poster designers opened up the possibilities for what graphics with the intent to sell something co­uld look like.­

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the art of the literary poster

Excerpted from “The Literary Poster: A Beacon of Modernity” by Allison Rudnick in The Art of the Literary Poster: The Leonard A. Lauder Collection by Allison Rudnick with essays by Jennifer A. Greenhill, Rachel Mustalish, and Shannon Vittoria. Originally published by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and available at The Met Store. Copyright © 2024. Reproduced with permission.

Allison Rudnick



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