Biography

Jules-Alexandre Grün (1868–1934)

Jules-Alexandre Grün Biography

Jules-Alexandre Grün Biography

Grün was born in Paris on May 25, 1868 in a fam­ily prob­a­bly of Alsa­t­ian refugees (his mother’s maiden name was Lei­den­frost) and was meant to become a trades­man. A com­pro­mise was reached with his fam­ily where he first stud­ied dec­o­ra­tion, doing a stint at Lavastre’s ate­lier at the Opera, and finally joined Guillemet ־ a dom­i­nant fig­ure of aca­d­e­mic paint­ing, who nev­er­the­less was linked to the Impres­sion­ist School. Grün’s tal­ent was pre­co­cious. As early as 1886, one of his paint­ings was accepted at the Salon des Artistes Fran­gais, a laud­able suc­cess (1) as he was merely eigh­teen years old. His work became a fea­ture of the Salon and was awarded an hon­or­able men­tion in 1897, before rapidly being declared ineleg­i­ble to com­pete. He charted a per­fect course, rapidly becom­ing the accred­ited offi­cial painter. By the end of his career he served as mem­ber of the com­mit­tee and of the jury, and received the Legion of Honor.

For all that Grün is far from being an indus­tri­ous young man — quite the oppo­site.
Fol­low­ing a chance meet­ing with Xan­rof (2), one of the reg­u­lars of the Chat Noir, he illus­trates a col­lec­tion of his songs. This endeavor in turn opens the door to Mont­martre where he set­tles in the begin­ning of 1890. His stu­dio, located at 48 Rue d’Orsel, next to the Boule­vard Roche­chouart, is in the heart of the dis­trict where cabaret singers and artists lead a merry Bohemian life. He soon joins them and becomes a full-fledged member.

In addi­tion to his two emperor’s first names, he sports an Assyr­ian beard and pre­ma­ture bald­head. Fursy, a cabaret singer and an old friend, recalls in his life story “this merry live-wire was the life and soul of every suc­cess­ful 4 z’Arts ball”. Every day he goes for drinks at the Auberge du Clou, meet­ing up with his cronies in a “col­lec­tive and usual” man­ner. One drinks a lot in Mont­martre, laughs as much, but also pro­duces a great deal of cre­ative work. Here Grün encoun­ters his elders: Roedel, Truchet, Steinlen, Wil­lette, who on the aver­age are ten years his senior. Although they all are painters, they make their liv­ings illus­trat­ing mag­a­zines, accept­ing to being referred to as “humorists” and orga­niz­ing one of the most sought after salons under this trade­mark. In this way Grün con­tributes to many pub­li­ca­tions: L’Assiette au Beurre (n° 104, “Leurs Gueules”), La Car­i­ca­ture, Le Rire, Le Cour­rier Fran­gais, Le Fin de Siecle. Like his friends, he will­ingly turns to dec­o­ra­tion. It is well known that he painted fres­coes for cabarets such as the 4 z’Arts or the Inco­her­ents. But this is just a bread-and-butter activ­ity and Grün soon becomes famous in an area where he out­does all of his com­rades: the poster.

Aside from an ini­tial atyp­i­cal attempt in 1891 (3), his first posters are dated 1893, and are linked to an attrac­tion that was all the rage at the time in cabarets-shadowgraph projections.

Le Rire - GrunHenri Riv­iere invented the con­cept in 1889 at the Chat Noir and imme­di­ately took the art to an out­stand­ing artis­tic level (4). His “Marche a I’Etoile” was per­formed hun­dreds of times. “L’Epopee” by Caran d’Ache was a hit as well. “Poleon Revue” illus­trated by Griin at the Deca­dents was no doubt a humor­ous car­i­ca­ture of I’Epopee, Grun con­tin­ues on the boule­vards in 1895 for an unlikely Joyeux The­atre where, next to the inevitable Wil­lette, he por­trayed a play enti­tled “Nuit Blanche”.

Main­dron (5), in Les Affiches Illus­trees, rightly notes that they are both designed in a sim­i­lar way:

In these strange and well designed posters, the char­ac­ters are sil­hou­et­ted against the white paper”. Grun also signs a poster for Strack at the Divan Japon­ais ־ “Sil­hou­ettes — affiches Grun”.

He has also undoubt­edly seen Valloton’s engrav­ings, in par­tic­u­lar Les Ama­teurs d’estampes (1892), used for adver­tis­ing by the dealer Sagot which directly inspires his poster for the Deca­dents in 1893.

This also applies to a poster for Le Car­il­lon, seen this time from the inside, where the bois­ter­ous atmos­phere ter­ror­izes a maidservant.

In 1896, seven posters by Grun are dis­played at the huge Reims Cir­cus poster show. Two por­traits are added to the afore­men­tioned posters: Sevianne and Valerie Leotti, where both color and Cheret’s influ­ence appear. A poster for an insur­ance agent, cur­rently untrace­able, was also on dis­play. In the fol­low­ing years, Grun, who is near­ing thirty, finds a style of his own. In 1895, the Car­il­lon changes man­age­ment and its owner, Mil­lan­voye, hires young Fursy as artis­tic direc­tor. In the pre­vi­ously unused gar­den he cre­ates a Comic Sum­mer Court of Cur­rent Affairs ־ “Les Assises du Car­il­lon”. He barely has time to com­mis­sion a poster by Grun, before mov­ing on to new adven­tures. For the first time this poster reveals the basic ele­ments of Grun’s style: Two basic col­ors — red and par­tic­u­larly the black back­ground that engulfs the cloth­ing of one of the char­ac­ters. 1897 is a turn­ing point: For the “Vachal­cade” (6), a big fair in Mont­martre includ­ing a parade, he designs a poster des­tined to recruit young local girls to liven up his float He also designs a poster for one of the shows at the Nou­veau The­atre (7). Here police­men appear for the first time ־ their uni­form but­tons and white gloves stand­ing out against the black back­ground are enough to sug­gest their sil­hou­ettes. The fair is a finan­cial dis­as­ter and he rep­re­sents “Le Bal du Deficit” orga­nized at the Moulin Rouge in order to fill the gap. Depict­ing a scene from a trade fair he uses color in vig­or­ous flats, no longer related to Cheret’s style, but where the flu­id­ity of the design is akin to Ibels’. Finally, for Tri­anon, he paints a group por­trait of the top chan­son­niers. From now on Grun becomes one of their accred­ited painters. 1898 is the year of his tri­umph with an emblem­atic poster: Le Treteau de Tabarin.

Fursy left the Car­il­lon at the end of 1895 in order to open the Treteau de Tabarin with his part­ner Ropi­quet. It was an instant suc­cess, but in order to con­sol­i­date his posi­tion, he sent for Grun in 1898. The result is mag­nif­i­cent. All the styl­is­tic ele­ments of Grun’s trade­mark are present: Plenty of red, a dab of green, a black back­ground and white paper. The fore­ground shows a rev­eler and two har­lots in a brisk, joy­ous and spir­ited design. The man’s shirt­front stands out against the black back­ground enabling the viewer to imag­ine two police­men in the back­ground thanks to their but­tons and belts (in this instance Fursy and Ropiquet).

This use of black is a true graph­i­cal inven­tion and is at once linked to its cre­ator — one could refer to a “black back­ground a la Grun”. The orders pour in, In the only inter­view which we know of, granted to Paul Dev­er­ney for The Poster (8), Grun declares: “I like posters a lot, and this kind of work has always appealed to me, even at my begin­nings as an artist. I am under no spe­cific strain to cre­ate them, I accept the orders as they come in, but I do not pur­sue them, One exhausts one­self at cre­at­ing posters, and in the long run, one is com­pelled to repeat one­self,” If Grun attempts to sin­gle out Cheret and his fol­low­ers who are doomed to this activ­ity, he over­does it a bit. Although it is clear that he is not beg­ging for com­mis­sions and that he is cer­tainly able to work with great ease, rapidly and with def­i­nite skill, it is pre­cisely thanks to his self-created artis­tic expres­sions that he delight­edly repeats him­self — I even sus­pect him of being a bit lazy.

A Cheerful Montmartre Dweller /Un Joyeux Montmartroise

A Cheer­ful Mont­martre Dweller /Un Joyeux Montmartroise

For exam­ple, his poster for “Le Vio­lon”, which imme­di­ately fol­lowed “Le Treteau de Tabarin” is a pure copy: Two police­men encir­cle a girl instead of two girls sur­round­ing a rev­eler. His posters for two vari­ety shows (“Revue a Poivre”, and “C’est d’un Raid”) are iden­ti­cal — only the image is reversed. How­ever, the end result is always a suc­cess since Grun uses a spec­i­men of wom­an­hood that bluntly rep­re­sents the sex bomb cor­re­spond­ing to the cur­rent canons of beauty: Ample bosom, wasp waist and cur­va­ceous rump. She is painted with lively col­ored flats that empha­size her fig­ure. In com­par­i­son La Cherette looks like a young girl at her first com­mu­nion. More­over, I sug­gest that, as we refer to the “Cherette”, that Grun’s women be called “Grunettes”. Admit­tedly, most of his com­mis­sions were for the new suc­cess­ful for­mula — vari­ety shows — whose titles and sub­jects were of a sheer bawdi­ness typ­i­cal to the fin de siecle where the double-entendre pre­vailed. Whether it be for La Cigale, La Scala, La Pepiniere or Le Moulin Rouge, Griin cre­ated licen­tious posters which per­fectly fit the trend. More­over, he was not averse to com­mer­cial com­mis­sions hav­ing a strong predilec­tion for the worlds of cycling, auto­mo­bile or tourism.

Although com­mis­sions are flow­ing, Grun’s suc­cess can be also mea­sured through the enthu­si­asm of the col­lec­tors fight­ing over his posters. Griin is high on their list, with three plates in Les Mat­tres de L’Affiche, the pan­theon of the poster album pub­lished by Chaix.

Above all he is the dar­ling of de Crauzat, the poster colum­nist for L’Estampe et L’Affiche from 1897 to 1899. These are the years of the poster craze, when col­lec­tors are will­ing to go to great lengths –includ­ing brib­ing the bill­stick­ers –in order to obtain the cov­eted posters (9). While the pub­lic is rush­ing to see the saucy shows adver­tised by Griin’s posters, these same works have an iden­ti­cal appeal for poster mani­acs. Begin­ning in 1898 Griin is the only artist to incor­po­rate a small white ring in his posters, stip­u­lat­ing that if it is not vir­gin, the poster can­not be sold. The vast major­ity of the posters which have been uncov­ered have lost this vir­gin­ity, which not only tells us a great deal about the effec­tive­ness of this process, but also about Grun’s pop­u­lar­ity and the inten­sity of the par­al­lel trade at the time. Griin now weds a most respectable per­former, Miss SToutain, the daugh­ter of a pay­mas­ter, and begin­ning in 1901 lives at 31 Boule­vard Berthier in the XVI­Ith arrondisse­ment — home to many suc­cess­ful artists.

The bohemian life of Mont­martre is fad­ing — as the con­stantly nag­ging Fursy notices — “another guy that turned out badly”. Grun’s style con­tin­ues to develop. His palette grows richer, the col­ors become more evi­dent and his rad­i­cal, min­i­mal style log­i­cally evolves towards an approach closer to paint­ing to which he now devotes more and more time. In 1911 his huge paint­ing “Un Ven­dredi au Salon des Artistes” estab­lishes his rep­u­ta­tion. His still-lifes and genre paint­ings, well exe­cuted but appallingly trite, enable him to lead a com­fort­able life.

Nonethe­less he does not scorn the poster art that he still prac­tices with evi­dent plea­sure and which also enables him to meet the costs engen­dered by his new way of life. An adver­tise­ment, essen­tially of a com­mer­cial nature and with seem­ingly exclu­sive rights, com­mis­sioned by the printer Herold (sub­se­quent to 1910, since it shows the “La Scala” poster ordered by Fursy when he took over the estab­lish­ment), depicts his lat­est cre­ations. This is new, in as much as he never had an accred­ited printer in his career (Herold is pri­mar­ily an agent who obvi­ously brings him new clients.) He works as well with Chaix, Bourg­erie and Verneau. Dur­ing his time with Herold he even patron­izes the Daubendis print shop that uti­lizes rotary presses with alu­minum plates. The use of lith­o­graphic stones — heavy and not very handy for large runs — starts to dis­ap­pear by the turn of the century.

After the war, Grun only accepts com­mis­sions for friends, essen­tially for exhi­bi­tions. He suf­fers from Parkinson’s dis­ease, a painful and debil­i­tat­ing ail­ment, and dies in 1938. Strangely over­looked, Grun amply deserves a book devoted to his work. He could be rec­og­nized as a priv­i­leged wit­ness of Mont­martre and the shows of its hey­days, but I believe that he should pri­mar­ily be rec­og­nized as a graphic arts pio­neer, greatly supe­rior to most of his contemporaries,

When all is said and done, beneath all the small cur­va­ceous women and the ruddy rev­el­ers, one some­how over­looked rev­o­lu­tion­ary inven­tions: The pres­ence of shadow-less black, the por­trayal of char­ac­ters through the use of sim­ple details and a miserly use of color, con­sti­tute a pro­ce­dure akin to Beggarstaff’s or Holwein’s tech­niques. He is cer­tainly pur­su­ing the same quest: Devel­op­ing an artis­tic vocab­u­lary spe­cific to posters.

His com­po­si­tions her­ald the best of Paul Colin for the music hall of the twen­ties. This fact prob­a­bly went unno­ticed since Grun was a dab­bler in graphic arts and lived in the dif­fer­ent world of aca­d­e­mic paint­ing, his area of predilec­tion, This should not pre­vent us, even in spite of him­self, from con­sid­er­ing him as a pio­neer of the mod­ern poster ■

Alain Weill


1) Gauzi, in his hook, “Lautrec et son temps”, recounts a visit to his mae­stro Cor­mon in order to show him his work which is sub­se­quently torn to pieces and there­fore not sent to be exhib­ited. Lautrec, to whom he tells his story, given his aris­to­cratic pride, decides to send one of his paint­ings, with­out com­ply­ing with this for­mal pro­ce­dure and is turned down as well.
Fran­gois Gauzi, “Lautrec et son temps”, David Per­ret, Paris 1957, p.34, etc.
2) Xan­rof (a.k.a. Leon Fourneau) was a bril­liant upper middle-class attor­ney who per­formed under this alias in Mont­martre. He became pro­fes­sion­ally suc­cess­ful as well.
aussi, une solide reussite officielle.
3) Men­tioned in an arti­cle in “The Poster”, poster for Car­lotta Kara at the Ely see Mont­martre. Fursy, Mon petit bon­homme de chemin, Louis Querelle, Paris p. 166. See p. 76.
4)    See “Les sil­hou­ettes du Chat Noir” by Luce Abeles in La Revue du Muse’e d’Orsay V/;. 17, fall 2003.
5)    Les Affiches Illus­trees 1885–1895. Boudet & Tal­landier, Paris. 1896.
6)    The first Vachal­cade in 1896 was adver­tised with a poster by Pal. Lautrec con­tributed as well to La Vache Enragee, a short-lived Mont­martre magazine.
7)    The Nou­veau The­atre and the Deficit posters include the nota­tion that they were sold at Pier­refort, thus intro­duc­ing Gain to poster lovers.
8)    Strangely enough, the French press does not treat him as well. Although de Crauzat men­tions and repro­duces many of his works in L’Estampe et L’Affiche, and three of his plates appear in Les Mat tres de L’Affiche, no fea­ture arti­cles are to be found, espe­cially in Li Plume, whose direc­tor, Deschamps, was nev­er­the­less a great cabaret lover who orga­nized Rive Gauche par­ties. No doubt Griin arrives on the scene a bit too late. His suc­cess tal­lies with the decline and the dis­ap­pear­ance of these pub­li­ca­tions in 1900. Only one mag­a­zine, L’Album, devotes a full fea­ture to Griin in 1902.
9)   voir L’Affichomanie — Masee de la Pub­licite’, Paris, 1979.
10) Fursy, Mon petit bonl­wmme de chemin, Louis Querelle, Paris, p. 166.