Many of Posada’s illustrations surviving to this day are from those that he produced while working for the printing house of Antonio Vanegas Arroyo. This is partly due to the longevity of the printing house which was active for three generations. The majority of the publications from the Vanegas Arroyo printing house containing his illustrations have no date. A precursory review of publications displaying Posada’s artwork with examination of images from the Brady Nikas Collection estimates that the number of images containing Posada’s signature at probably less than 1,000.
Posada’s illustrations for Vanegas Arroyo were used mainly in broadsides, (sometimes published as bulletins, gazettes) and chapbooks. Broadsides (also called broadsheets) are divided into three typical sizes: Fullsheets (about 30x40cm), Halfsheets (approximately 17x24cm) and Double Fullsheets (measuring about 60x40cm).
Posada is known to have created images for over fifty Mexico City based periodicals, including: the dailies, Gil Blas, El Popular (1897-1907), El Amigo del Pueblo (1897), and El Argos (1903-04); the weeklies Gil Blas Cómico (1893-96), La Patria Ilustrada (1886-90), El Fandango (1890-92; 1895), La Risa del Popular (1897-98), Revista de México (1889-91), El Chisme (1899-1910), El Diablito Rojo (1900-1910), El Paladin (1901-10), La Guacamaya (1902-11), El Padre Padilla (1908), San Lunes (1909), and irregular issued publications such as La Gaceta Callejera (Street Gazette) (1892-94).
Posada also illustrated many small booklets, typically under 20 pages in length and measuring roughly 9x12cm in dimension. The little publications known in English as chapbooks and in Spanish they are referred to using several terms; cuadernos, cuadernillos and cuentos. Chapbooks contained a variety of popular subjects including but not limited to: prayers, religious themes, recipes, short stories, songs, plays and verses. As with the broadsides the images that appeared in chapbooks were printed on a variety of newsprint quality paper stock. Sometimes the paper was colored, sometimes images were hand colored and many images were used over again for different stories. Front covers usually were illustrated with an image related to the content of the chapbook. Sometimes there were illustrations on the inside and often there was an advertisement on the backside.
Between 1899 and 1901, Posada illustrated for the series called the Biblioteca del Niño Mexicano, written by Heriberto Frías and published by the Maucci Hermanos Publishing and Book Company, founded by Italian-born Carlo Alessandro and Maucci, but printed by Emanuele of Maucci in Barcelona, Spain.
The series comprised 110 little chapbook sized booklets each measuring about 12.5 x 8 cm. Every “Maucci book” had a color illustration on the front and three black and white illustrations inside. Posada signed only five of the Maucci books.
During his lifetime the calavera images created by Posada were perhaps the most popular items he produced and accordingly, he is generally credited with popularizing the calavera images commonly seen today. Posada, Manuel Manilla and at least one other illustrator named Cortes all created skeleton images called calaveras for Dia de Muertos, (Day of the Dead). The calaveras were issued along with corridos or verses usually satirizing some poignant issue of the day or showing living persons as though they were dead.
The most famous calavera image was dubbed “la Calavera Catrina” by Diego Rivera and is believed to have first appeared in 1912 just a few months before Posada’s death. The image was modified to a full length Calavera Catrina (standing next to Posada) by Diego Rivera in his 1947 mural “Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Alameda Park.” The mural may seen today in the Alameda of Mexico City.
The religious imagery created by Posada most often depicted saints, perspectives of Jesus Christ, various renderings of Our Lady of Guadalupe and many of the most popular saints of the time. The printing house of Antonio Vanegas Arroyo actually kept a schedule listing popular saints’ days and key religious holy days so it could go to press with publications relevant to specific dates and occasions.
Posada illustrated many political cartoons. Some of the earliest were made while he lived in his home town of Aguascalientes during the time he worked at the workshop of José Trinidad Pedroza. There are images dating from 1871 at the workshop of Pedroza and although it is likely Posada arrived earlier, at present there is no confirmed dated for when he first began working at Pedroza’s workshop. It is however, established that Posada illustrated his first political cartoons appearing in a publication by the name of El Jicote (The Wasp) dating back to 1871. When Posada moved to Leon, Guanajuato in 1872 the illustrations tended to be more for books and advertisements.
As may be seen in Posada’s work from his time in Aguascalientes and León he initially worked as a lithographer. Some of Posada’s finest images were lithographs made during his time in León, but as far as known there were no political cartoons. There are however many political cartoons made for a variety of publishers from Posada’s time in Mexico City.
Sensational images were also a part of Posada’s catalog raisonné. While working for publisher Antonio Vanegas Arroyo, Posada illustrated a number of highly sensational images such as the horrifying story of Antonio Sanchez who goes berserk killing his family and eating his infant son or the illustration of what may be the first depictions of men at a drag party.
The image of Antonio Sanchez provides the opportunity to consider the possibility that Posada and the editor Antonio Vanegas Arroyo collaborated on the illustrations that Posada produced. The inference may be drawn from the story itself which describes Sanchez as using an axe to kill and dismember his family. Depicting the act of cannibalism is far more demonstrative in terms of imagery if the illustration clearly illustrates the event that is being described in the text. It is difficult to imagine that Posada and Vanegas Arroyo did not discuss the grotesque portrayal of Sanchez with wild hair, eyes bursting wide while biting into his apparently still living infant son.