The largest poster at Swann Galleries’ upcoming Dec. 15 sale of Art Nouveau-era posters is also the most mysterious.
The nearly 10-foot-tall poster, by the well-known Belgian poster designer Henri Privat-Livemont, depicts a beautiful (and quite curvy) woman swathed in a transparent gossamer veil and holding up a tambourine. “Rajah,” the name of a popular turn-of-the-century Belgian coffee and tea company, is emblazoned across the top.
In the last few decades of the 19th century, Privat-Livemont did several posters for Rajah, and also for absinthe distributors, theaters and casinos. But copies of this particular one, and historical information about it, are scarce. Other than a single image of it in the December 1990 issue of The Poster, it has rarely been reproduced and has never been included any exhibition or bibliography on the artist. The model is also not known.
There’s speculation that it was originally designed for the Belgian Pavilion at the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris, but there are no records, said Nicholas Lowry, president of Swann and its poster specialist. Mr. Lowry said he last saw a copy–titled Rajah–up for sale 30 years ago. “Perhaps they didn’t survive because they were so big,” he said. “You can keep 1,000 stamps in a book, but with 1,000 posters, you’re talking about an entire room in your house.”
The image, somewhat racy for it’s time, was a hit a century ago. British art critic Edgar Wenlock wrote in 1900 that a discussion of Belgian art was not complete without Livemont’s “huge poster of ‘Rajah Teas and Coffees.’” He said of the work: “The whole forms a glowing and insistent mass of colour.” Swann’s copy, grade “B,” is relatively well preserved, with slight creases and abrasions and repaired tears and other fixes, said Mr. Lowry. The presale price estimate is $12,000 to $18,000.
Those who don’t have the space or the funds for the Rajah can turn to the more affordable examples by other preeminent draftsmen of the era, including posters by “the father of the modern poster” Jules Cheret. Hugely popular in his lifetime, the artist’s lithesome, carefree French girls, spotted on walls all over Paris, were called “Cherettes.”
At Swann, Mr. Cheret’s poster for the operetta “La Cigale Madrilene” has a low estimate of $800. Several other large-scale Cheret images are for sale in the $400-to-$4,000 range.