An exhibition at the Musée de l’Image (museedelimage.fr) until the end of September shows that surrounding ourselves with popular images is not a 20th- century phenomenon, but is something people have been keen on for centuries.
The museum has a collection of 100,000 popular images from the 17th to the 21st century and this exhibition, Images sur les murs, reveals that they were used to decorate even the lowliest homes.
The technology was, of course, not as sophisticated as it is today, but mass-produced cheap printing was possible as early as the 17th century, when images were printed from woodblocks and colour was added using stencils.
They were reproduced in their thousands and pasted up in the most modest of homes across the country.
In the 19th century, the technique of lithography was introduced and images could be printed in tens of thousands.
They were cheap, and available even in the most remote locations. Pedlars would sell them as they travelled around towns and villages. They offer a fascinating insight into what was popular in different societies at different times.
Not many have survived in situ, but in the 1970s a remarkable discovery was made in Bessans, Savoie. One house had a room with 60 images dating from the 17th to the 19th century.
Jennifer Heim, responsible for heritage at the Musée de l’Image at Epinal, Vosges, said pictures were removed or replaced in most houses as fashions and generations changed, so this find was exceptional.
She said: “There are pictures everywhere. On the shutters, on the beams and on the walls, and it could well be representative of what houses were like inside.”
She said the majority of the images were religious and reveal a great deal about the people who lived there.
“It is clear that the inhabitants were Catholics who were against the Protestant Reformation, because some images are ones which were sold by the Jesuits.
“There are also images of John the Baptist, who was revered in the village where the pictures were found, as the church was famous for owning relics which were said to be the saint’s fingers - the very ones used to baptise Christ.
“When people put up pictures like this, it was a way for them to show other people their political or religious beliefs.”
Mrs Heim said images would have been pasted up in bedrooms if they existed, but often there would have only been one communal
living room. “Many would have been put up near the fireplace, perhaps in the same place where the television is put today, and where people grouped together to keep warm.”
She said images were not chosen just to be decorative: “They did brighten up often very sombre interiors with their strong colours, but three-quarters of them had religious themes.
“Most were representations of saints, as for each difficulty, a family could find a different saint to help them, for example St Christopher, patron saint of travellers, and his image is still taken by people going on long journeys.
“A lot of the families depended on their animals and their crops, so they would choose the relevant saint for their form of agriculture.
“There was almost a magical virtue attached to each image.
“There were also others which were printed specially to protect the house, and these were often put over the entrance.”
Other images reflected events of the day: “People have always liked to know what has been going on in royal families, so there were often portraits of kings and queens and big events, similar to the frenzy which surrounds royal weddings today.
“Today the media is different because you can find the images on the internet or in magazines but at that time the only way was to have posters.
“From the 17th century onwards, there have also always been calendars, which cheered up the house with an image which was often purely decorative.” Until the 19th century, there were printing presses throughout Europe but after the Revolution, religious images became less popular and gradually many presses closed.
Printing mass-produced images continued mostly in eastern France, where one man, Jean-Charles Pellerin, became famous for his Imagerie d’Epinal.
He understood what was popular and had great success with his images for children, as well as his biggest ever series from 1830 onwards, which was centred on Napoleon 1, who died in 1821.
“There was a great affection for the emperor which lasted throughout the 19th century and he was especially popular after his death.
“It was almost like a religious cult. There was a great nostalgia for him because people saw the empire as a golden age and saw him as a saviour of France.
“The many images of him produced by Pellerin were pasted up in houses throughout the country. They were often put up next to Christ or the Virgin Mary.
“Where the picture is placed is also important. It shows that people felt Napoleon was as important as Christ.”
Mrs Heim says this form of interior decoration gives more hints about the way people have lived in the past three centuries than some of the greatest works of art.
She said: “Our museum is a social, rather than an art, museum and by looking at popular images we can make parallels with our society today. Though religion has far less importance today, our preoccupations are the same in many ways.
“We have always had the need for images around us, to express our personal view on our contemporary world.”