French artist Jules Chéret (1836–1932) was considered by many to be the most successful poster designer of his day. An innovator of graphic design, he created advertising posters for many of the theaters in Paris during the Belle Époque. His 1893 poster, Folies-Bergère, La Loïe Fuller, depicts the American dancer Loïe Fuller in her signature movement, spinning on stage while multi-colored footlights shine on her swirling robes.
The poster has been in the MFA collection since 1954, but was in very poor condition. It had been mounted onto a linen backing, but the finely woven linen, adhered to the verso of the poster sometime in the early twentieth century, was failing. It had begun to delaminate and was causing distortions in the paper. Many pieces of the poster had fallen off and creases had turned to tears. In fact, it was stored framed, a precaution deemed necessary because of its fragility.
In order to clean and repair the poster, the failing linen backing had to be removed. The cloth was peeled off in strips, revealing the extent of old damages. Small temporary repairs, the white strips visible below at the near edge, were applied to stabilize the most fragile areas and prevent further tears during the course of treatment.
Once the lining was removed, the poster could be treated aqueously. The paper, all the ink colors, and the inscriptions were first tested for sensitivity to water. The poster was then sprayed with a fine mist of water before being immersed in a bath.
Removing the wet poster from the bath was an extremely delicate process requiring the coordinated effort of many hands. The poster was supported with a rigid plastic screen so it would not flex or tear when lifted out of the water.
Next, a paper similar in texture to the poster paper was used to make fills for the losses. The poster paper is brittle and discolored, typical for posters from this time period as they were not printed on high quality paper, but even though this led to countless losses along the edges and in the text, there are actually few losses within the central image itself.
Once dried, the toned paper was shaped to conform to the areas of loss and attached to the poster using wheat starch paste.
Filling losses and repairing tears gave much needed stability to the large poster, but it was still too fragile to be displayed without a new lining. A sheet of Japanese paper, adhered with wheat starch paste to the back of the poster, was added to support the tears and reduce distortions.
The newly lined and still slightly damp poster was then secured along the lining edges to a rigid support and allowed to dry over a period of several weeks. This method holds the object in plane as it dries, reducing wrinkles and distortions. During this time, losses are inpainted on the fill paper using watercolor paints.