The popularity of the performers and music at café-concerts and cabarets meant there was a thriving market for sheet music during the fin de siècle.
To encourage sales, publishers commissioned printmakers to illustrate the covers, offering the artists both a source of income and exposure to a large public.
Some of the illustrations were of such high quality that they were also published as collector’s editions without text or musical notation.
The public at large was highly appreciative of Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen’s covers, with their anecdotal scenes in a realistic style.
He designed almost two hundred of them — primarily for songs by politically engaged chansonniers, but also for light classical music.
It was Henri-Gabriel Ibels, however, who went on to become the most popular illustrator of song sheets. Some of his prints depict the song’s performer, with whom he was often friends, while others illustrate the content of the music using a wide range of types.
Sheet music was often printed on cheap paper, with advertisements for other compositions and blank spaces in which to insert the price of different versions of the same score.
Alongside commercial illustrations, there were small-scale initiatives of a modern and experimental character by the artists themselves.
The best of these were the music books Pierre Bonnard made with his brother-in-law, the composer Claude Terrasse.
Bonnard’s prints for Petites scènes familières translate the emotion and rhythm of the music into intimate domestic scenes, built up through the decorative play of undulating lines.
Gale B. Murray, ‘Music Illustration in the Circle of Bonnard. From Naturalism to Symbolism’, in Phillip Dennis Cate et al.,_ Prints Abound: Paris in the 1890s_, Washington and London 2000
Gérard Millot, ‘Henri-Gabriel Ibels, Nabi Illustrator of Songs: A Catalogue Raisonné of his Music Sheets’, Zimmerli Journal (2005), nr. 3, pp. 198-215