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The Golden Age of Illustration

Ani Margaryan

ASAG Journal

February 7, 2021

The Nightingale Stories


—from Hans Andersen, with illustrations by Edmund Dulac, London, Hodder & Stoughton, Ltd., 1911.

The Golden Age of Illustration (1880's to 1920's) was a period of unprecedented excellence in book and magazine illustration. It developed from advances in technology permitting accurate and inexpensive reproduction of art, combined with a voracious public demand for new graphic art.
In Europe, as well as in America, illustrators and cartoonists were influenced by the Pre-Raphaelites and by such design-oriented movements as the Arts and Crafts Movement, Art Nouveau, and Les Nabis. Leading artists included  Edmund Dulac, Walter Crane, Aubrey Beardsley, Arthur Rackham and Kay Nielsen. Edmund Dulac, born in Toulouse, France, was artistically inclined from adolescence. He switched from law to art and moved to London where he was in tremendous demand from publishers.
Dulac's most famous works of art include beautiful illustrations for books like the Arabian Nights, Sleeping Beauty, Stories from Hans Christian Andersen and the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám."The Nightingale" (Danish: "Nattergalen") is a literary fairy tale written by Danish author Hans Christian Andersen. Well received upon its publication in Copenhagen in 1843 in New Fairy Tales, the tale is believed to have been inspired by the author's unrequited love for opera singer Jenny Lind, the "Swedish nightingale".
The story says that the Emperor of China learns that one of the most beautiful things in his empire is the song of the nightingale. When he orders the nightingale brought to him, a kitchen maid (the only one at court who knows of its whereabouts) leads the court to a nearby forest, where the nightingale agrees to appear at court; it remains as the Emperor's favourite. When the Emperor is given a bejewelled mechanical bird he loses interest in the real nightingale, who returns to the forest. The mechanical bird eventually breaks down, and the Emperor is taken deathly ill a few years later. The real nightingale learns of the Emperor's condition and returns to the palace; whereupon Death is so moved by the nightingale's song that he allows the Emperor to live. The question then arises: why Andersen emphasized the Chinese origin of his tale?

According to Andersen's datebook for 1843, "The Nightingale" was composed on 11 and 12 October 1843, and "began in Tivoli", an amusement park and pleasure garden with Chinese motifs in Copenhagen that opened in the summer of the same year. It’s worth mentioning that the most fascinating site of the current park is the so-called “Chinese tower and boating lake” inspired by Chinese traditional pagoda architectural design and Chinese gardens, also “Pantomime theatre”- common with the Chinese palaces by its decor. Perhaps those gems of the newly-opened park were influential for the author to select Chinese protagonists. As for Edmund Dulac, he has been several times engaged in illustrating East-related fairy tales and stories, such as “Princess Badoura”, “The story of the bird Feng”, etc., employing Chinese art leitmotifs and ornaments to underline the Oriental nature of those literary works. Dulac’s devotion to Eastern culture was appreciated by the commission of the Chinese ambassador's wife - Madame Wellington Koo’s portrait (circa 1921) to him.
It’s noteworthy that in China the translation and introduction of “The Nightingale” along with Andersen's other fairy tales were initiated by some members of the Literary Research Society, which was founded in 1921, and some intellectuals in China who led the New Culture Movement. Chinese versions of Andersen's fairy tales designed for young readers appeared in the early 1930s, gaining popularity. After the reform and opening-up of China in the late 1970s, Andersen's fairy tales were retranslated by many and were enthusiastically received by Chinese readers in the 1980s.


The Nightingale Stories

The Princess & Chinese Dragons: The world of the short-lived American female illustrator Virginia Frances Sterrett

She was born in Chicago, Illinois, in 1900, and according to the biographers, was an introverted child who preferred the world of imagination and drawing to social interaction with other children at school. At the beginning of her career, she won several awards at the Kansas State Fair (c. 1913), an event that encouraged her to focus even more on drawing. In 1915, Virginia and her family returned to Chicago.

She started high school with the intention to study art but soon migrated to the Art Institute of Chicago, where she was admitted on a complete scholarship. Virginia left the Institute little more than a year later, when her mother got sick. She became the sole support of her family, working in art advertising agencies around Chicago. Unfortunately, the artist soon herself was diagnosed with tuberculosis. 

She was first commissioned by the local Penn Publishing Company (established in 1889) to illustrate the Comptesse de Ségur's Old French Fairy Tales. She was only nineteen then and received an impressive amount of money for her work. This was quickly followed by another commission for Tanglewood Tales from the same publisher.

Nonetheless, her health condition was worsening: she could only draw for a short time per day. Between 1929 and 1930, when Virginia's health improved slightly, she exhibited locally at the Little Gallery in Monrovia, California, also entered competitions at the Los Angeles County Fair and the California State Fair.

Although her last commission is regarded as a series of illustrations for Myths and Legends, she never completed it: her health took a turn for the worse and she passed away on June 8, 1931, at the age of 30. “The Arabian Nights”, her last published work, is considered her masterpiece, which is also peculiar by the usage of Chinese ornaments and design-related details.  

One glance is enough to realise that through her art Virginia was turning away from the material world of striving, suffering and hopelessness, creating her own realm- replete with colours, carelessness and ease, where the good always defeats the evil, where only elegance, delicacy and grace may reign (Pic.1).



Despite her short lifetime, she succeeded in forming her artistic manner by taking inspiration from Art Nouveau and Art Deco, through juxtaposing and interbreeding presiding tendencies of illustrative art of the time with the Oriental, particularly Arabic, Persian, and finally Chinese ornaments and motifs.

Virginia designed her protagonists’ garments, accessories, as well as covered spaces of middleground and background of a number of her works by borrowing decorative language of Chinese centuries-old culture (Pic.2). 



It’s noteworthy that her composite figures of beasts and mythical animals bear resemblance to the Chinese dragon images wide-spread in decorations of Chinese robes, textiles, tapestries, ceramics (Pic. 3, Pic.4). 





The employment of Chinese motifs is eye-catching in her last completed work- illustrations of “The Arabian Nights”, where the Oriental princess as well as her rescuer Aladdin appear in luxurious attires and adorned from head to toe with precious stones, embroidered and brocaded silks and satins, reminiscent to the Qing dynasty upper classes’ and imperial traditional ensembles (Pic.5).



As for the headgears of these mythical heroes, they are characterised with the likeness to the headdresses of Beijing Opera and Chinese theatre performers (Pic.6). 



One of her illustrations present Aladdin’s first encounter with the genie: if her other compositions related to the same theme are eclectic with the neat mixture of Oriental, Medieval European, Islamic, Turn-of-the century Western decorative elements, so that it’s beyond possibilities to separate those influences from each other, (Pic.7)



in this certain illustration Aladdin seems to be of concretely Chinese origin with traditional hairstyle of Chinese “queue” (front and sides are shaved, and the rest of the hair is gathered up and plaited into a long braid) (Pic.8),



 and the genie with his shamanic look in his turn resembles the appearances of Taoist hermit figures from Chinese scrolls, paintings and porcelain decorations (Pic.9)



but in more demonised, furious form. To some extent it has parallels with the Eastern villain character’s general representation, derived from Beijing Opera.  
It’s worth mentioning the stylised version of the gem of Chinese architecture-pagoda, as the main focus of one of her illustrations of the same series (Pic.10). 



Meticulous observance and study of Chinese folk culture and art was possible by already adopted and developed principles by her predecessors and counterparts, who were also involved in illustrations of East-referred fairy tales and short stories, advertisements and posters of opera and ballet performances of the exotic lands’ tales, such as, Giacomo Puccini’s Turandot. Besides, Chinese porcelain, ornamental system of Chinese paintings, screens, scrolls, Chinese cabinets, Western women in Chinese dresses and headgears, Chinatown districts across the US and their inhabitants at the period for more than four decades have not only become a favourable subject for American artists, but also set the base for artistic signature of Arts and Crafts movement, Aestheticians, Pre-Raphaelites and other dominant “art for art sake” styles of the time. Regarding Virginia’s legacy within this context, her choice of Chinese-art-related elements and potential sources of inspiration became obvious, at the same time they aren’t obstacles for valuing Virginia Sterrett’s oeuvre both as demonstrations of her skills and fascinating “new world” where the borders between West and East are blurred.

Spirit, 1885 by George Roux

George Roux was a French artist and book illustrator. Some of his best-known works today were created for gothic horror and science-fiction novels. For example, perhaps the most famous stories he ever drew for were authored by none other that the great Jules Verne and his series "Les voyages extraordinaires".

Here we see one of his gothic inspired works with "Spirit" (Fig 1). It is a mesmerizing piece by the French illustrator, created in 1885. Spirit's unique composition and exceptional details make it a visual feast for the eyes. Roux employs an intense use of shadows, which adds depth and dimensionality to the artwork. The multiple shades of muted colours and balance of textures in the image make the ghost like figure even more luminous while at the same time extremely eerie.


Fig 1. Spirit, 1885 by George Roux
George Roux, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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